From Ex Machina to Men, Alex Garland is always exploring original sin

From Ex Machina to Men, Alex Garland is always exploring original sin
Alex Garland’s new film Men is rife with Eden imagery — but that’s true of all of his work. | A24

The filmmaker’s new movie continues his penchant for ancient iconography and spoiled paradise.

He’d almost certainly resist pinning it down this way. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Alex Garland’s directorial work is a variety of angles on one core, eternally troubling, ancient idea: the notion of humankind’s original sin.

It’s a mythic, biblical sort of idea, that we were made for paradise but spoiled it. Yet that obsession might not be so evident from a cursory glance at his work. His 2014 directorial debut Ex Machina and 2020 TV drama Devs are science fiction, imagining vast possibilities for our future in technology we barely understand. Even when he doesn’t explore technology, the stories come back to this idea. His 2018 horror-thriller Annihilation lives somewhere between an extraterrestrial nail-biter and a bad dream. His newest film, Men, also feels like it emanates from a nightmare, this one more explicit about the trauma it explores.

“A lot of this stuff is really hard to talk about without sounding silly, I think,” Garland told me over Zoom. “So what I do is try and put it in the films, and make the cases and the arguments within the films. I try to make films that have arguments, if you want them, but also don’t have arguments if you don’t.”

A woman stands at the end of a long tunnel, in silhouette. There’s a green forest behind her.
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Jessie Buckley in Men.

In other words, you can watch his films for what they are: brain-bending thrillers with uncanny, sometimes downright creepy images that really get under your skin. But they’re all making an argument — one he doesn’t care to explain, but one I also can’t escape. And that argument is inherent in his most potent, recurring images.

Perhaps the most potent of these is lost paradise. Each film dips into pristine utopias, most often in the form of a lush green forest, that gets somehow corrupted. That motif is buried so deep in our collective subconscious that it has continued to emerge in storytelling throughout human history, from mythical origin stories to fairy tales to our visions of the future. Men is no different, starring actress Jessie Buckley (of The Lost Daughter and Wild Rose) as a woman named Harper who’s trying to find peace after tragedy in an idyllic country house set just outside a small country village. But her Eden, her paradise garden, can’t last. The title suggests why.

To put it in biblical terms, the Garden of Eden is the original, perfect home for humans. But that paradise is interrupted when the first humans give in to the desire to become like gods, able to understand good and evil, by eating fruit from a forbidden tree — a move that results in a curse, driving a wedge between man and woman, introducing patriarchal subjugation and childbirth pain. Together, the humans are driven from paradise, and through this lens the rest of human history is an attempt to regain the paradise they’ve lost.

In Ex Machina and Devs, especially, Garland’s characters explicitly muse on what it might be like to be gods, with the ability to create life and control fate. But Men, like Annihilation, is more interested in the curse of being human. The new film explicitly replicates some lost-Eden imagery, most notably by way of a recurring naked figure who haunts Harper from beneath apple-bearing trees. It also vividly evokes the agony of childbirth, albeit from an unlikely source.

One of the oddest motifs in Men foregrounds the gender and reproductive dynamics of that curse. It’s two ancient images, of a man and a woman, carved onto alternate sides of an altar in an old stone church. On one side is a man with leaves growing out of his face, a figure known to historians as the “green man”; the other is the “sheela na gig,” a Venus-like woman who crouches and exposes her vagina to the looker.

Detail of a Green Man at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, 12th century.
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A Green Man at the Southwell Minster cathedral in Nottinhamshire, 12th century.
Sheela-na-Gig, Kilpeck, Herefordshire.
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A sheela na gig in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, at the 12th-century Church of St. Mary and St. David.

“I’ve been turning round that iconography for a long, long time,” Garland explained. The imagery is common across Europe, appearing in medieval churches, Roman mosaics, Victorian buildings, and more. “And there’s a lot of pubs in Britain called The Green Man,” he noted. “So we are surrounded by it, but it’s like we don’t notice it, and there was something about being surrounded by something that was unobserved that I found really interesting.”

The figure of the woman was especially interesting to Garland. “I don’t want to over-interpret it from a modern point of view, but it feels like what she’s doing is holding your gaze, and she’s pulling open her vagina and looking straight at you,” he says. “There’s something incredibly frank and straightforward about it.”

He found himself wondering what the figures represented to the people who made them. By inserting them into his film, he’s bringing that mystery back up for us to see through our own interpretive frameworks. (I assumed they were meant to be Adam and Eve when I first saw them in the film.) But their roots seem as likely to be pagan as anything else, and the fact is, nobody knows. Yet they clearly meant something important because they were carved into stone, over and over.

And like those repeated images, lost paradises echo across Garland’s work. There’s the gorgeous, serene home of mogul-genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in Ex Machina, set in a vast, pristine estate of forests and mountains, where Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds something wilder than he’d ever imagined. There’s the deadly but alluringly gorgeous shimmer of Annihilation, into which Lena (Natalie Portman) ventures, hoping to maybe redeem her own soul. And in Devs, there’s the seemingly magical forest and gleaming research facility that Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) enters, trying to solve a mystery she can’t yet understand. (It’s created and owned by a tech genius, played by Nick Offerman, who’s literally named Forest.)

A man stands with his head ringed by a LCD halo.
FX
Nick Offerman as tech genius Forest in Devs.

I asked Garland whether this recurring imagery was on purpose. “It can’t be a coincidence,” he says, noting that The Beach, his 1996 novel (which became a Danny Boyle film in 2000) was also an incursion into paradise. “Obviously, there’s some kind of deep preoccupation.”

For Garland, it’s about an existential uneasiness twisted together with strange beauty. “When something’s really good, a thought arrives almost immediately, which is, ‘Oh, shit. When’s it going to go wrong? How’s it going to get disrupted?’ There’s always something poignant in that,” he says. “That particular poignant feeling is often something I can feel myself hunting for in films. And sometimes that would just be as simple as something that is both disturbing or sad, but also beautiful.”

In each case, the Eden is interrupted by an existential question so large the humans inside can’t fully understand its implications. For Nathan and Caleb, as well as for Lily and Forest, it’s whether humankind can develop a technology so powerful and expansive — an artificial intelligence or a prediction engine that can see the future — that they will in effect turn themselves into deities. For Lena, it’s whether desire is the great savior or killer of our species. And for Harper, it’s about desire, too — specifically whether there’s any hope of escaping the insatiable neediness of men that thwarts the desires of women.

A cyborg examines another cyborg face hanging on a wall.
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Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.

Near the end of Devs, Lily is described as having “committed the original sin.” She sins by making a choice instead of submitting to determinism, the world that exists, thus rupturing the fabric of the universe set in place from the dawn of time. This, in turn, is only possible because of the technology Forest has developed. It’s a stunning moment, one that sets Forest and Lily on an unexpected path that, as they learn, could lead to paradise or dystopic oblivion.

And so I wonder if at the root of Garland’s questions about the nature of the “sin” that keeps humankind out of paradise is the argument that trying to become gods could lead us to bliss or, well, annihilation. When I asked him about the increased recurrence of ancient imagery in film, which crops up in movies from Tenet to The Green Knight, he sees some fear of the future.

“I think there’s a general sense that all sorts of ideologies and iconographies and positions that we’ve held have just collectively failed us,” he says. “I often get the sense that we are waiting to see — are things going to settle? Or are they going to get stormier or stormier?”

“You could make a completely reasonable case that stuff has not been working for a long time, and now it’s just being evidenced. But you could also say, ‘That’s true, but things do also change. Things do not always stay the same,” he notes. “Sometimes stuff changes with good results, and sometimes with really, really bad results. And I think we feel that in the air at the moment. I think it’s been like that for a little while.”

A woman stands in a lush green wild forest. Humans who have turned to figures covered in flowers are standing around her.
A24
Natalie Portman in Annihilation.

Or a long while. If we follow the logic of Garland’s movies, we come to the conclusion that the world is reaching some kind of breaking point, that technology has given us the option to recreate ourselves but that, at the same time, our desires and needs are capable of wrecking us altogether.

Does he intend that? Not exactly. But it keeps coming out, he says. “I just keep turning round these things and looking at them from a slightly different angle,” he says. “Or just considering them in a different way. Or something like that.” Men is the most visceral and organic dive into the curse of human nature that he’s made yet. But it’s like each of his movies, filling in the question of what it means to be human — and to keep living on this planet — stroke by stroke.

Men opens in theaters on May 20.