The Alex Garland Movies Ranked
With his feature directorial debut EX MACHINA, British novelist, screenwriter, and game writer Alex Garland exploded even further onto a scene in which he had been participating since the 1990s with his first novel THE BEACH (1996). Indeed, since 2014, Garland has seemed to focus on his writing-directing film work, the culmination of sorts of a career that saw the writing of movies like 28 DAYS LATER (2002), SUNSHINE (2007), and DREDD (2012) and games like ENSLAVED: ODYSSEY TO THE WEST (2010) and DMC: DEVIL MAY CRY (2013). Besides the three movies Garland has directed in the eight years since 2014, the multi-hyphenate who has worked in a number of mediums also put together, as writer-director once again, the TV miniseries DEVS (2020). So the guy has made a name for himself across forms, but on the whole, Garland has been constantly fascinated with a mode of sci-fi storytelling that often explores the impact of technology on human lives. His latest film, MEN, is the impetus for this piece and also a departure in some themes from his other cinematic and television projects. As you’ll read, that also leads to a difference in quality, but ultimately, Garland’s newest phase of his career (that of movie director) has yielded a couple of exceptional and thought-provoking experiences so far.
#3 — MEN (2022)
The use of the term “elevated horror,” if it ever stood for anything useful at all, is totally out of control. Indeed, the term elevated horror seems to imply that old movies like HALLOWEEN (1978) or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) or even some of the “schlock” to come out of Roger Corman’s stable somehow didn’t have brilliant images to share or something to say about the world in which we live, or if they did, they were regressive in communicating it. But as MEN pointedly makes clear, this glut of what people call “elevated horror” films, which I would really often consider artistic failures, are really deescalated. Garland’s attempt to comment on toxic masculinity plays with a fire it cannot control, eschewing the director’s sci-fi leanings to work with an Airbnb rental horror story as well as a “pagan magic” one that cribs from recent hits of a similar style. There are some beautiful images to be found in MEN, and some genuinely disturbing ones, but the pace of the movie is so turgid and its politics much more regressive than I’m sure was intended that it boggles my mind. Memories of many of the movie’s moments inspire confusion or frustration, not genuine bewildering horror. One of the movie’s greatest sins is giving Jessie Buckley very little to do and it’s not like she can’t handle herself in bizarro nightmare lands, as I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020) demonstrated. Garland’s latest at the time of this writing does give us a pretty strong set of performances from Rory Kinnear, I must admit, and again, there are ideas and images within the movie that caused me to squirm in my seat or sit with a bliss that I knew would be curdled soon enough. MEN just doesn’t handle any of its themes or narrative devices particularly deftly.
#2 — ANNIHILATION (2018)
Now really, at this point, it seems only EX MACHINA of Garland’s three films was a relatively unmitigated success. His highly anticipated adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, ANNIHILATION, was pretty divisive, especially among the hardcore fans of the book. While it earned on the whole greater critical praise than MEN, this movie also came out as a box office flop. In both critical and commercial reception, however, I find that audiences were unkind to ANNIHILATION. Like MEN, I think some of this movie’s vagueness and muddled themes don’t always satisfy, but here that’s more intriguing than frustrating. And besides, ANNIHILIATION beautifully and unsettlingly illustrates a truly alien world, accomplishing something not unlike Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) or ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) in its execution of an epic, cosmic horror. The whole stacked cast of actors, from Natalie Portman to Oscar Isaac, deliver at the very least recent career bests and Garland was able to parley his EX MACHINA success into a movie of greater scope and more intense action and visuals. ANNIHILATION is clearly not the director’s best movie, but it deserved more than what it got, and I think it will stand as a remarkable sci-fi film of its day.
#1 — EX MACHINA (2014)
Welcome criticism has been leveled at the way Garland’s debut feature goes about warning humanity about artificial intelligence. But I think EX MACHINA brilliantly represents, if not in a totally subtle way, a segment of MEN’s goal. By portraying two versions of masculinity interacting with the apparently subservient, female-coded AI Ava (played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander), the movie communicates a potent message of male cluelessness and technological development wariness. The characters of Caleb, the sheepish subordinate, and Nathan, the eccentric tech CEO, are so well-written and performed even better by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, respectively. And EX MACHINA’s limited scope, taking place almost entirely in Nathan’s remote, modernist retreat, is the perfect setting to amp up the tension that exists between essentially three characters…although when the nature of Nathan’s “assistant” Kyoko is revealed, it’s positively powerful, even if you saw it coming. It’s perhaps not surprising that the writing of the movie is strong, considering Garland’s background, but he brought a strong, nearly fully formed visual sense to his first film. There are some truly incredible shots in this movie and the director works with a relatively small budget to great effect, deploying CG with an effective hand and enveloping tense moments in great color and shadow. EX MACHINA was rightfully celebrated, and still is, as a powerful yet restrained bit of sci fi tension, or even horror as you might see it. But I think the movie is brilliant in that its events, and especially its ending, put the horror in the eye of the beholder. These elements mark EX MACHINA as Garland’s most thematically consistent and effective, besides its enjoyability as a genre film with building suspense, intriguing twists, and beautiful cinematography.