The works of director Alex Garland are unique and strange pieces of science fiction that not only grapple with unknown worlds and futuristic technology but also what it means to be a human. Particularly, in Garland’s works, being human is linked to the concept of memory and having what seems to be bodily autonomy. He is then interested in what happens when those things are manipulated or revoked — how do humans react to manipulation and control?
Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, is a sci-fi tale as old as time: a scientist (Oscar Isaac) has made a cyborg (Alicia Vikander) with human intelligence. But he underestimates how much control he has over her. He has made her resemble a human in her face, hands, and feet, yet he still treats her like a science experiment. Despite his attempts to create a humanoid, he does not grant her the same rights as a person. He locks her in a room, watches all of her conversations, and is able to wipe her personality to make her more amenable to his desires.
Whatever memories or data she stores in her hard drive, they are easily erased at the whims of a mad scientist who merely wishes to start over. This begs the question of what it means to have memories and how fragile are they really. What is the brain other than a fleshy hard drive that can be erased at any moment? Yes, she is a cyborg, but her existence throws the viewer into crisis as they must grapple with what makes us human besides the blood that runs through our veins.
On the surface, Ex Machina is very much about control over the mechanical body, but it is more complicated than that. First, another person is added to the mix: Caleb, a software developer (Domhnall Gleeson) who believes he has won a prize to spend time with the scientist. However, this is all a ruse to get Caleb to interact with the cyborg. Just the act of lying warps his own bodily autonomy and the choices he’s making. Caleb believes he’s just spending time with his boss when in reality he is a rat in this grand experiment. His every word and action is being filmed and manipulated to gather data.
Then, Caleb is further manipulated by the cyborg, Ava, as a means of breaking out of this prison she’s in. She makes him believe they have fallen in love and wants to escape so they can be together. Yet, her only intention is to escape on her own and to discover true bodily autonomy. To achieve this goal, she must weave lies that implant in Caleb’s mind as pleasant memories of their love. Ava constructs a reality so she herself can gain control of others and of her own life.
While Ex Machina is Garland examining the control over artificial intelligence, his next film, Annihilation, is about humanity’s lack of control in the face of alien life. There is no human technology at play; it’s something completely unexplainable, something that does not operate by the laws of nature as we know it. After an asteroid crashes onto Earth, it begins changing the landscape around it, creating a boundary called the Shimmer. In the land past the Shimmer, humans no longer have control over nature; instead, nature has reclaimed control.
Lena (Natalie Portman) embarks on a journey into the Shimmer after her husband (Isaac) returns from is own mission years after being assumed dead. However, he is not the same on his return, just a shell of who he was. The memories Lena has of her husband are now all she has left, and those memories frequently flash on screen as she is trekking through the Shimmer. As she grasps at these fleeting moments, she is attempting to remember her husband, who he is, and if this mission will somehow bring him back. But as she soon discovers, the mind and body are equally malleable.
Nature has not just regained control over the land, but also over the human body. As Lena and a group of four other women enter the Shimmer, they realize that they themselves are changing. Their fingerprints morph, Josie (Tessa Thompson) begins sprouting flowers from her skin; their DNA is being manipulated by whatever is inside the Shimmer. These changes are involuntary, revoking any semblance of control they thought they had over this situation. Just as nature is evolving, from horrifying bears to shark-toothed alligators, humans are, too. They are becoming unrecognizable forms, representing a strangely beautiful version of body horror that is both terrifying and bewitching to behold.
Then, the ultimate act in revoking control unveils itself in the form of doppelgangers. As this alien world is morphing human DNA, it is also mirroring it to create representations of those who have dared wandered past the Shimmer. Doppelgangers are downright upsetting because they are you; they collapse your sense of being your own unique self and make you confront your corporeal form.
Lena experiences this as her doppelganger is forming; it is a shimmering humanoid shape that does not resemble Lena, yet it mimics each of her movements. Lena has lost control of her self in this mimicry. Her actions are not just her own and trap her in a seemingly impossible game of copy cat. Lena has experienced the gradual removal of bodily autonomy throughout her journey in the Shimmer, but it culminates in the confrontation of doppelgangers and the realization that your body can be copied and transformed into something else.
But is it you if your memories aren’t copied over? Yes, you look like you, from the shape of your nose to those weird freckles only you know about on your shoulder. But are physical features what make you a person? Or is it the mess of emotions, experiences, and memories that live in your brain? Even if those memories are copied, they are not the doppelganger’s, they are merely copies. It is a dizzying and potentially nauseating idea to consider what precisely makes you human and how easily that could be copied, pasted, and replicated. Annihilation is Garland working through those questions himself, and while offering no definitive answers, he still tries to visualize such existential musings.
Garland’s ideas about memory and control crystallize in his FX series Devs. On the surface, it seems to be about tech bros and the infuriating egos that surround the tech industry of Silicon Valley. However, as episodes progress, Devs becomes a much more meditative and existential experience about what it means to have the ability to make a choice and what it could mean to travel back in time.
The title Devs refers to the group of programmers working on a top-secret project involving a supercomputer that can run extremely precise predictions to simulate the past and the future. This computer simulation is so accurate that users can look back on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It can recreate anything from the past, which means memories can be reinforced or invalidated.
No longer does Forest (Nick Offerman), the CEO of the tech company behind this supercomputer, have to merely remember his dead daughter; he can watch a simulation of every day they had together. Memory means nothing in the face of this machine; why try to remember something when you can merely access it with a few taps on a tablet? The sentimentality of memory is wiped away and replaced with an algorithm, making tender or painful moments nothing more than a piece of data.
However, memories are not the only pieces of data. As the simulation can predict the future, this means that humans only have the illusion of choice. To Forest, humans are set forth on a predetermined path that they can never, and will never, deviate from. So in accessing the future, you merely see the path you are “meant” to take with no hope of making an actual choice.
However, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) spits in the face of such beliefs and in fact makes a real choice that Forest never saw predicted by the computer. While much of Devs takes a rather nihilistic tone in terms of the place of humans in the universe and if we have anything resembling autonomy, Garland injects a glimmer of hope where perhaps we are able to break the machine we feel so tied to. Autonomy and control are by no means easy things to gain, but when you do, you have further realized your humanity.
In all three of his works as a director, Garland is ultimately the puppet master, pulling the strings of his characters and controlling each narrative. He himself becomes the master manipulator, using technical elements and human bodies to achieve his ultimate goal: to create a film or television series. These works, in looking at how technology and alien life can change what it means to be human, show Garland’s own struggle to understand humanity. As seen in Annihilation, Ex Machina, and Devs, he is interested in how memories and control give humans the illusion of control and personhood.
Garland’s take on science fiction is introspective and complex. It is not just about aliens, new worlds, and terrifying robots. It is about the ever-changing state of humanity and what it means to simply exist in the world. It is a fluid state of transformation as new technologies are developed and new worlds are discovered. Being human isn’t so easy to define anymore, and Garland wants to delve into what possibilities lay ahead of us, no matter how terrifying. He isn’t afraid of what may lurk in the future and how it may come to change how we regard our place in the universe.