He would almost certainly resist pinning it this way. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Alex Garland’s directing work is a variety of angles on one core, perennially disturbing, ancient idea: the idea of humanity’s original sin.
It’s a mythical, biblical kind of idea that we were made for paradise, but ruined it. Yet that obsession may not be so apparent from a cursory glance at his work. His directorial debut in 2014 Ex Machina and TV drama from 2020 developers are science fiction, proposing vast possibilities for our future in technology that we barely understand. Even when he’s not exploring technology, the stories come back to this idea. His 2018 horror thriller Destruction lives somewhere between an alien nail biter and a bad dream. His latest movie, Menalso feels like it stems from a nightmare, this one more explicit about the trauma it explores.
“A lot of stuff like this is really hard to talk about without sounding crazy, I guess,” Garland told me via Zoom. “So what I’m doing is trying to put it in the movies and make the cases and arguments in the movies. I’m trying to make movies that have arguments if you want them, but also don’t have arguments if you don’t have them. ”
In other words, you can watch his films for what they are: mind-bending thrillers with eerie, sometimes downright creepy images that really get under your skin. But they’re all arguing – one he won’t explain, but one I can’t escape either. And that argument is inherent in his most powerful, recurring images.
Perhaps the most powerful of these is Paradise Lost. Each film delves into pristine utopias, usually in the form of a lush green forest, which is somehow damaged. That motif is buried so deeply in our collective subconscious that it has continued to crop up 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 Prodigal Daughter and Wild Rose) as a woman named Harper trying to find peace after a tragedy in an idyllic country house just outside a small country village. But her Eden, her garden of paradise, will not last. The title suggests why.
To put it in biblical terms, the Garden of Eden is the original, perfect home for people. 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 and drives a wedge between man. and woman, introducing patriarchal submission and childbirth pain. Together, the people are driven from paradise, and through this lens the rest of human history is an attempt to reclaim paradise lost.
In Ex Machina and developersGarland’s characters, in particular, explicitly muse on what it might be like to be gods, with the ability to create life and control destiny. But Men, Like it Destruction, is more interested in the curse of being human. The new film explicitly replicates some lost Eden imagery, most notably through a recurring nude figure chasing Harper from under apple trees. It also vividly evokes the agony of childbirth, albeit from an unlikely source.
One of the strangest motifs in Men brings out the gender and reproductive dynamics of that curse. They are two ancient images, of a man and a woman, carved on alternating sides of an altar in an old stone church. To one side is a man with leaves growing from his face, a figure known to historians as the “green man† the other is the “sheela na gig‘, a Venus-like woman who squats and exposes her vagina to the viewer.
“I’ve been flipping that iconography for a long time,” Garland explained. The statues are common throughout Europe and appear in medieval churches, Roman mosaics, Victorian buildings and more. ‘And there are many pubs in Britain called The Green Man,’ he noted. “So we’re surrounded by it, but it’s like we don’t notice it, and there was something about being surrounded by something that wasn’t perceived that I found really interesting.”
The figure of the woman was especially interesting to Garland. “I don’t want to interpret it too much from a modern point of view, but it feels like she’s holding your gaze, and she’s opening her vagina and looking right at you,” he says. “There’s something incredibly candid 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 brings that mystery back so that we can see through our own interpretive frameworks. (When I first saw them in the movie, I assumed they were meant to be Adam and Eve.) But their roots seem just as likely to be pagan as anything else, and the fact is that no one knows† Still, they clearly meant something important, for they were carved in stone time and time again.
And like those repeated images, lost paradises echo through Garland’s work. There is the beautiful, serene home of the hooligan genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in Ex MachinaSet in a vast, pristine estate of forests and mountains, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds something wilder than he ever imagined. There’s the deadly yet tantalizingly beautiful shine of Destruction, in which Lena (Natalie Portman) ventures out, hoping perhaps to redeem her own soul. And in developers, there’s the seemingly magical forest and shiny research facility that Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) enters, trying to solve a mystery she can’t yet understand. (It was created and owned by an engineering genius played by Nick Offerman, who literally goes by the name Forest.)
I asked Garland if these recurring images were intentional. “It can’t be a coincidence,” he says, pointing out that The beach, his 1996 novel (which became a Danny Boyle movie in 2000) was also a foray into paradise. “Obviously there’s some kind of deep preoccupation.”
For Garland, it is about an existential unease intertwined with strange beauty. “When something is really good, a thought comes to mind almost immediately, which is, ‘Oh shit. When does it go wrong? How is it going to be disrupted?’ There’s always something poignant in that,” he says. “That particular gripping feeling is often something I find myself chasing in movies. And sometimes that’s as simple as something that’s both disturbing and sad, but also beautiful.”
In any case, the Eden is interrupted by an existential question so great that the people in it cannot fully comprehend its implications. For Nathan and Caleb, as well as for Lily and Forest, the issue is whether humanity can develop a technology so powerful and expansive — an artificial intelligence or a prediction machine that can see the future — that they will, in fact, turn themselves into gods. For Lena, it’s about whether desire is the great savior or killer of our species. And for Harper, it’s also about desire — specifically, whether there’s any hope of escaping the insatiable neediness of men that thwarts women’s desires.
Almost the end of developers, Lily is described as someone who has “committed the original sin”. It sins by making a choice instead of submitting to determinism, the world that exists, thus breaking the fabric of the universe that has been put in its place from the beginning of time. In turn, this is only possible thanks to the technology that Forest has developed. It’s a stunning moment, one that puts Forest and Lily on an unexpected path that, as they learn, could lead to paradise or dystopian oblivion.
And so I wonder if Garland’s questions about the nature of the “sin” that keeps humanity out of paradise is arguing that trying to become gods could lead us to bliss or, well, destruction. When I asked him about the increased repetition of old images in film, which shows up in films by Basic principle until The green knighthe sees some fear for the future.
“I think there’s a general feeling that all kinds of ideologies and iconographies and positions that we’ve taken have collectively failed us,” he says. “I often feel like we’re waiting to see – are things going to settle down? Or are they getting stormier or stormier?”
“You could reasonably argue that the stuff hasn’t worked for a long time, and now it’s just being proven. But you could also say, ‘That’s true, but things are also changing. Things don’t always stay the same,” he notes. “Sometimes things change with good results, and sometimes with very, very bad results. And I think we’re feeling that in the air right now. I think it’s been like that for a while.”
Or for a long time. If we follow the logic of Garland’s films, we come to the conclusion that the world is reaching some kind of breaking point, that technology has given us the ability to recreate ourselves, but at the same time our desires and needs are capable of destroying us completely.
Is he planning to? Not exactly. But it just keeps coming, he says. “I just keep turning these things around and looking at it from a slightly different angle,” he says. “Or just look at them in a different way. Or something.” Men is the most visceral and organic dive into the curse of human nature he’s made yet. But it’s like any of his films, answering the question of what it means to be human – and to continue living on this planet – one step at a time.
Men opens in cinemas from May 20.