I’m back on the Double Feature this week. As I was trying to decide what to do for the post, I wanted to do some modern science fiction, and I settled on Annihilation as one of the films, but trying to find a good pair too awhile, until I saw Ex Machina as an option. However, what I didn’t realize until I’d already finished Ex Machina and started Annihilation, was that these films are both written and directed by the same person. So we have an accidental post on Alex Garland. This week’s films are:
Alex Garland – Ex Machina (2014)
Alex Garland – Annihilation (2018)
It’s rare that I do such recent films, but I’ve been interested in Annihilation ever since I first heard about it. There was a bit of controversy around it when the studio decided not to do a wide release internationally, and instead sold it directly to streaming services in those regions. I had seen Ex Machina several years before when it initially released on Blu-Ray and always found the film really interesting.
So regardless of my failure to do further investigation into the filmmaker before watching, this should be an interesting pairing.
Let’s get into it.
Ex Machina (2014)
Caleb, a programmer at a large search engine company wins a contest to visit Nathan, the mysterious founder of the company at his remote compound. But when he arrives, rather than a relaxing week of bonding, he discovers that he is expected to test a new AI that the founder has developed to see if it has consciousness. But as Caleb gets involved, it’s clear that Nathan is keeping much bigger secrets from him.
The film is written and directed by Alex Garland, and was his directorial debut. He was previously known for writing, and wrote films like 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, which we previously covered on this blog, and is one of my favorite films. It stars Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac. All of these actors had worked before, but none of them were as well known as they are now. It’s fair to say that this film was a major stepping stone to much bigger things for all of their careers. Short of Sonoya Mizuno, who never speaks a line in the film, and a helicopter pilot that we see early on, that’s the entire cast of the film.
The film plays like a suspense thriller and it sets itself up right from the beginning. The first scene involves Caleb winning the contest at the company. As his co-workers congratulate him, we see brief shots of him through the eyes of cameras on his monitor and phone, implying that he is being watched. We get a quick leap forward as he’s immediately in a helicopter, flying to the compound. The pilot lands in an empty field, and Caleb is instructed that he has to walk several more miles in order to reach the actual building. There are no roads, or even paths, we see Caleb shoving aside branches as he moves through the forest. He finally comes across the compound, and when he is allowed in, he has to search for his host.
Nathan is presented as self-absorbed and damaged, admitting he is hungover, but being completely isolated, reveals that he’s been drinking alone. He is very confrontational with Caleb, putting a lot of pressure on him, particularly when he puts an NDA in front of him. Caleb reads it, discovering that by signing it, he is giving permission for invasive surveillance to ensure he isn’t talking about whatever he sees. But Nathan gives him the hard sell, telling him that he’ll regret it for the rest of his life if he doesn’t see what Nathan is prepared to show him. Caleb signs.
Caleb is told that he is to perform a Turing Test on the new humanoid robot with artificial intelligence that Nathan has created. The Turing test was envisioned by the inventor of modern computing architecture, Alan Turing. Turing said that in order to decide if an artificial intelligence was accurately mimicking human behavior, a human would have to talk to it through some kind of chat interface. If they couldn’t tell the difference between the AI and a human, the AI passed the test.
Of course, as technology has advanced, this test turned out to be somewhat simplistic, and didn’t envision human-like robots. But in this version of the test, Caleb is asked to sit and have a conversation with Ava, the AI, in her room, while he is behind glass.
Ava is presented as a robot, with humanoid features, and some of her mechanisms visible through transparent skin. Her face, feet and hands have human-like skin attached, giving her some familiar features. But she is unmistakable as an artificial being.
The test proceeds as a conversation, and after each conversation, we get a scene where Nathan and Caleb talk about how it went. This might sound fascinating to someone interested in technological advances and the ethics of computing like me, but for those who don’t study computing the film adds an extra layer.
I think most people in the audience would instinctively mistrust Nathan from the start. His aggressive, yet secretive nature doesn’t make him mysterious as much as it makes him a source of anxiety. This feeling is enhanced by a moment during their first meeting when the power goes out in the complex. Ava and Caleb are suddenly completely alone, unable to be seen by the cameras visibly monitoring them. Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan, that he is lying to him.
This begins a new plot for the film. While Caleb tries to continue learning if Ava has achieved consciousness, he also must learn if Nathan is being honest with him.
This is the main conflict of the film. Caleb is being pulled in two directions. Will he help Ava escape her captor, or will he help Nathan prove that she is real, which he eventually learns will lead to the destruction of Ava as he improves her code.
All of the actors do an amazing job in the film. Both Isaacs and Gleeson are both playing people with things to hide. Nathan is hiding what the real test is and other secrets of the compound, along with why Caleb was selected as the tester. Caleb is trying to hide Ava’s secrets, which include their conversations when the power goes out, along with the fact that Ava is the source of the power outages. Nathan of course is an old pro at deception, while Caleb is naively terrible at it. Careful viewers will be able to see how Nathan pretends not to notice how bad Caleb is at lying.
Ava presents herself as innocent and curious. She also seems to know things about the outside world. When she discusses going out, she says she wants to visit a busy traffic intersection to be surrounded by people. She goes out of her way to show Caleb she is capable of being human, showing him how she looks in clothing that covers her robot parts, and a complete wig.
The film is filled with interesting philosophical discussions. Caleb questions whether she is programmed to like him as a way to distract him from other flaws in her mimicking of human behavior. Nathan responds that she’s programmed to be heterosexual and that he’s the first man she’s ever seen except for himself, who he compares to a father figure. In these discussions, each character has an interesting perspective on the nature of AI, and how we as humans can be sure that Ava actually has consciousness.
The film also has significant horror elements. Once Caleb decides to help Ava, he takes advantage of Nathan’s drunken state and steals his keycard, looking through his computer system. He is able to look through footage of previous experiments where we see human like robots, much more realistic looking than Ava, begging and pleading for their lives, or half finished sets of legs walking around. One figure beats on the door until her own arms fall off. It’s a horrific scene.
Additionally, Nathan has an assistant named Kyoko. He claims she doesn’t speak English, so he can talk freely around her, but it becomes clear later that Kyoko is some kind of mindless slave, and in fact a much simpler AI herself.
This all leads to the climax. During a power outage, Caleb tells Ava that he will get her out that night by getting Nathan drunk, then reprogramming all the security protocols to unlock the doors during a power outage. He tells her to start a power outage at 10pm, and they will leave.
The next day, Nathan reveals his secrets. The real test involved seeing how Ava would react to someone who could help her escape. She was able to use charm, and sexuality, and vulnerability to manipulate Caleb into helping her. He is sure he’s won. But then Caleb reveals that the plan he explained to Ava was already completed, he did it the previous day when Nathan was passed out. The power goes out, and Ava is free.
Nathan tries to stop her, but Kyoko and Ava both stab him, killing him. Caleb is trapped in Nathan’s room, and rather than freeing him so they can leave together, she leaves him in the room while she casually uses the failed experiments to complete her skin, and puts on some clothes before leaving. She takes the helicopter that was meant for Caleb, and escapes to the real world. In the final shot of the film, she walk down a sidewalk, towards a busy traffic intersection.
Lena, a biologist believes she lost her soldier husband over a year ago. But when he arrives on her doorstep acting strangely, they are both taken by the military. She learns that he was sent on a mission into a strange phenomenon called the shimmer, which is getting larger. The military has been sending troops into it to examine it for years, but her husband is the first one to return. When Lena discovers that an all-female team of scientists will be the next group to go in, she volunteers to hopefully find a cure to the health problems her husband is experiencing. What will the team find when they enter the shimmer?
The film is again written and directed by Alex Garland. The film stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaacs, Tessa Thompson, and Michelle Rodriguez among some others. Like Isaacs, Sonoya Mizuno also returns in a small role as a student of Lena, and as a motion capture character at the end of the film.
While Ex Machina was largely a suspense thriller with a few horror elements, this film is more of a horror film with mystery elements. Right from the beginning we’re presented with the mystery of the film.
The film opens with Lena sitting in a room in white scrubs, being interrogated by men in encounter suits. She is grilled on topics like how they ate, since she was gone for four months, and only had two weeks worth of rations. She doesn’t have answers to their questions. But she begins to tell them what she remembers. The film returns to this interrogation several times, setting up an effective narrative structure in which we can get some context of what happened beyond what can be shown on screen.
At this point, the entire film is a mystery, but as the film begins, we are presented with a different mystery: what happened to Lena’s husband Kane(Oscar Isaacs). Details are sparse early on, but we know that he has been missing for a year, and that he was a soldier, and Lena is deeply affected by his disappearance. She finally decides to repaint her bedroom, as a way of coping, and admitting to herself that he’s probably dead.
That evening, her husband simply walks in the front door and enter the bedroom. When asking him about his disappearance, he doesn’t seem to know where he’s been. He knows her, and remembers their life, but he can’t answer simple questions. In his mind, he’s only been gone for a few months. This film mirrors Lena’s reaction to the interrogation at the start of the film.
As he talks, Kane drinks some water, and when he sets the glass down, it is filled with blood. Lena calls an ambulance, but on the way, it is pulled over by government officials, who take them both into custody.
Lena is woken by Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ventress is portrayed as cold, and secretive. After interrogating Lena about her husbands reemergence, she reveals the existence of the shimmer.
It appeared years ago at a lighthouse, set off by a meteor. It has slowly grown larger over time, necessitating the evacuation of a local community. They keep sending people into it to study it, but no one has ever returned, except for her husband, who is currently in multiple organ failure.
This sets up Lena’s motivation. She needs to enter the shimmer to save her husband. That evening, she meets a group of female scientists who are going to enter the shimmer the next day. Being a biologist, and a former soldier in the Army herself, she is perfectly qualified to go along with the team of Anya, Cassie, Josie and Dr. Ventress. She joins, but decides not to tell them that she is the wife of the man who returned from the shimmer.
The film plays with time a lot, and throughout the film we get flashbacks to her life before Kane’s disappearance, and then flash forwards to the interrogation. We’re not always sure where we’re at in time during the flashbacks, but as the film goes on, they play an incredibly important role in rounding out the character of Lena, and understanding her real motivations.
The film does a great job of getting us into the shimmer as soon as it can while setting the mood of the film. After another quick return to the interrogation scene, the 5 walk into the shimmer with their packs, along with high powered rifles.
Once they enter the shimmer, the film flashes forward to the women waking up in their tents. Lots of films do this kind of editing to cut out uninteresting parts of the film. But as the women begin to find each other, we learn that they don’t have awareness of the intervening time either. Anya and Cassie are looking through the rations to try to figure out how long they’ve been in the shimmer. Josie realizes that all of the electronics work, but that no outside connection is possible.
Things get stranger when they find a home half-sunken into a swamp. Lena finds that there is a single flowering vine, but instead of having the same flowers, there are many different flowers growing from the same vine. A crocodile attacks from the water, and after killing it, Lena discovers that it has teeth like a shark.
Another major plot point is revealed as they take boats through the swamp. In talking to Cassie, she learns that everyone on the team has their damage. Cassie lost a child, Anya is a recovering alcoholic, and Josie self-harms. Dr. Ventress has unknown issues, but she has a single-minded drive to get to the lighthouse and discover the origins of the shimmer.
The next major plot advancement comes when they discover the original base used to study the shimmer. It’s here where the films horror elements really begin to take hold. Garland makes effective use of body horror when the team finds a video left by the previous team, the one that included Kane.
In the video, one soldier is clearly in distress. Kane is seen cutting open the stomach of the soldier, and inside, we see his intestines slithering like snakes. As the women are in disbelief, they discover Dr. Ventress in a disused pool, where the soldier was left. But instead of a simple body, they find the man’s body in pieces, apparently broken apart by a fungus which engulfs his remains. The tension here is increased for the audience knowing that the rest of the team has seen Kane cut open another man. Their working theory is that the team went crazy and killed each other.
In classic horror movie fashion, the team starts losing members soon after, when a large creature we can’t really see, but is identified as a bear grabs Cassie and drags her off.
As they reach the community that was evacuated, they find strange trees that have taken the shape of humans. They finally begin to understand what the shimmer is actually doing. They theorize that it is somehow combining the DNA from various individuals with no real limits. These trees have the human DNA that describes the shape of the body.
Things ramp up here, and the filmmaker introduces some paranoia elements, along with more body horror. I won’t spoil it, but the ending of the film does a great job of giving us a resolution, but also continuing the mystery.
The Double Feature
These are the only two films that Alex Garland has directed. His work tends to have a connection to technology, and he often covers ethical issues of technology in his films as well.
As an academic, Ex Machina seems almost wholly designed to pique the interest of academics working in technology. The characters personally grapple with so many interesting issues about the ethics of creating an AI, particularly one which exists in a human body.
Interestingly, the film seems obsessed with reflections. In most of the shots of the film, a character is reflected in a surface. This seems to be a nod to the idea that Ava is a reflection of a human. The film asks us to consider these issues, and gives us a strong perspective. Throughout the film, Ava has professed her interest in Caleb, treating him like her savior. But as soon as she doesn’t have use for him, she discards him. This might seem cold, but Ava’s allies in this world are the other AI robots, not the humans who have oppressed her. At the end of the film, we aren’t even sure that Caleb survives the experience. The last we see of him he is trapped in the compound while Ava escapes.
Annihilation is a really effective horror film with good sci-fi as well, but this is a story about Lena. Later in the film, we learn that when her husband was going off on his final mission, she was having an affair with a colleague. This changes her motivation drastically. Before this moment, we assume her motives are altruistic. She wants to help her husband because she loves him. But after we learn this, it seems more like she feels guilty that he volunteered for this suicide mission because he felt like their marriage was over, and is trying to prove to herself that she loves him. It feels more selfish.
These are the kinds of nuances that Alex Garland brings to his films, which make his films really interesting. I’ll definitely look forward to whatever he does next.
I’m writing this at the start of my last semester in graduate school. Regardless of what happens over the next few months, I won’t be back next year. I’m fully engaged in my job hunt. My plan is to finish my dissertation and graduate in May. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll finish up the dissertation once I move on. But I gotta get out of here and move on. Nothing personal PhD, but it’s just not healthy for me to be here anymore.
Looking forward to next week, I’m going to stick with my plan of not announcing the next set of films ahead of time. Criterion has promised to restart a streaming service this year, and there are rumors that when Warner launches their service it will include the TCM movies that disappeared when Filmstruck was killed. Once those come back, I might make an effort to bring that back.
Until then, see you next time.