Film-By-Film

Alex Garland: A Film-By-Film Guide to the Devs Director

As the novelist-turned-filmmaker makes his TV debut with tech thriller Devs, we look back at his fascinating filmography so far

Alex Garland was propelled to international fame when he wrote his first novel, The Beach, in his early twenties. As a work of fiction, it would come to define his unique style, delivering both genre thrills and intelligent commentary. Given just how cinematic the novel is, it's not surprising that The Beach was adapted to film, or that Garland would eventually abandon his career as a novelist to move into filmmaking.

Garland's work might be best defined as a kind of “pulp seriousness.” His stories are always rooted in a deep love of genre, in horror and sci-fi, but with an inclination to go further. He's always had something to say, whether it's about tourism, or the nature of consciousness, but his particular talent is in exploring these ideas within the frameworks of genre.

What separates Garland from so many other genre filmmakers of the day is his refusal to go easy on audiences. As he's grown older, his projects have become more cerebral – a result of a growing interest in science and its implications. He's no stranger to adaptation, either: more than half his works are based on existing properties, always approached respectively and without ego.

He recently made his television debut with the fascinating eight-part series Devs, which has brought further acclaim and feels like a natural extension of his filmic career to date. For more than twenty-five years, he's worked on a number of great and diverse projects as either writer, director, producer, or all three. Here's our film-by-film guide to the work of this singular mind. Long may be continue – in this world, and in others, too.

 

The Beach (2001)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

By his own admission Alex Garland had nothing to do with the film version of The BeachYet it feels so tied to his career as an artist and filmmaker that it deserves mention here, especially as it marked the first of many collaborations with director Danny Boyle.

Garland's original 1995 novel – which sees a young backpacker named Richard on a quest to find the location of a secret beach far from the tourist trail – is a brilliantly sharp critique of backpacker culture, a near-satire on the western tradition of using foreign lands as theme parks, that also somehow works as a celebration of travel.

The movie version, sadly, is none of these things. The first mistake is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio, who – aside from being an American – exemplifies the kind of eccentric backpacker the novel's more stoic British counterpart would find horrifying. In places, Boyle taps into the spirit of the book, especially in the film's opening act (Robert Carlyle's casting as mad Scot “Daffy” is particularly inspired), but it quickly gives way to generic thriller territory, indulging in the sorts of tired tropes that Garland's novel worked hard to subvert. Little trace of his voice remains in this Hollywood-ised version, but it does at least have a killer soundtrack. All this to say: skip the film and read the novel, which somehow feels more timely now than it did upon first publication.

 

28 Days Later… (2002)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Though its early adoption of digital photography has aged it somewhat, 28 Days Later… will go down in history as the film that popularised the “fast zombie” – though don't say to Garland, who has never been comfortable with the term. The frenzied mob that have overrun the United Kingdom are, in fact, infected with “Rage” – a shock for former bike courier, Jim (Cillian Murphy), who awakens from a coma to find London deserted. Soon he's on a mission to reach Manchester, answering a distress beacon (a favourite Garland plot device), as the writer's sparse and realistically-minded script skirts the genre cliches.

Boyle and his team achieved the barren city shots with clever organisation and some very early mornings; today the crowds would be removed digitally, but real is real, and the moment where Jim crosses the Westminster Bridge clinging to his plastic bag remains a truly iconic image of early 2000s cinema. The film's set pieces are delicious little terrors: a nightmarish pursuit through a block of flats, a confrontation with an infected priest in a church. The zombies still terrify, but they're not – and here you sense Garland's point – as frightening as the sinister soldiers who “rescue” Jim and his companions in the third act. Here the foundations are laid for the Garland theme that would later come to define his career: man's abuse of science to disturbing ends.

 

28 Weeks Later… (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Based on the success of the first film, 28 Weeks Later… felt like an inevitable sequel, returning to the UK in order to tell the story about how the rest of the world got infected (hint: Channel Tunnel… big mistake.). Garland was less hands on here, eschewing writing duties in order to serve as an executive producer – easy to tell in the film's lax approach to detail. For one, why is Robert Carlyle's Rage-infected dad able to hunt down his own relatives? Wasn't the scariest thing about these fast zombies that they were mindless killing machines, incapable of “thought”?

The set-pieces push credibility here, also, ditching the gritty realism of the first film as the Americans lock down Britain (though this might be a not-too-subtle nod at America's tendency to police the world?). There is a certain thrill to the nail-biting opening farm house chase, a truly nightmarish scene in which Carlyle abandons his own wife to the bloody-thirsty hoard, and later in an excessive – but admittedly cathartic – moment where a pilot uses the blades of a helicopter to decapitate a dozen zombies in a single chop. A sequels go, this one's fine, but it lacks the care and stripped back horror that made its predecessor so chilling.

 

Sunshine (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

At some point in the not-too-distant future, physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) is part of a manned space mission to reignite a dying sun. The previous attempt resulted in disaster; quickly it becomes apparent why. The closer to the sun the team get, the weirder the psychological effects. And should they really answer that mysterious distress beacon?

Danny Boyle's first (and only proper) foray into sci-fi is as beguiling as it frustrating. Working from Garland's elegant script, Sunshine taps into the self-conscious seriousness of seminal space works like 2001 and Solaris, but the film – per Garland – remains unafraid to dip its toes into pool of pulp storytelling. As with all great, claustrophobic sci-fi, Sunshine thrives on the dynamic of its ensemble. This one – featuring the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, and Rose Byrne – is rich in actorly talent. Rigid line reading might inject the film with a certain clinicalness, but there are greater implications in what is not said (Evans is especially good, bringing some well-needed texture to the piece).

If this marks the first attempt in Garland's career to engage with “brainy” sci-fi, it's slightly let down by a third act that descends into unintelligible madness, a flurry of crazy edits that appear to be masking a lack of direction – or purpose. Flaws aside, Sunshine still radiates a strange and undeniable glow. A film that burns itself into your retinas long after it reaches its explosive conclusion.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Garland penned the screenplay for the adaptation of acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go, which was written by his friend, Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Given his close relationship to Ishiguro, Garland secured the rights and wrote the film script before the book was even published, marking this out as a passion project in every sense of the word. Set in an alternate reality, it focuses on the life of “Kathy H,” a carer played by Carey Mulligan, whose job is to look after organ donors. Slowly we learn that everything is not quite so simple in a story both heartbreaking and beautiful.

Garland's attempt to be respective of his friend's book shows in abundance; especially in the careful way he approaches the tricky subject matter. But books and films are different beasts, and though the film is always engaging and intelligent, there are some tonal issues. The noticeable “flatness” might stem from a reliance on staying faithful, but limits the movie's texture. It's a fault that Garland has himself addressed, going as far as to make a conscious effort to avoid this in future projects. Yet maybe the biggest problem comes in director Mark Romenak's decision to play down the book's sci-fi elements. You can't imagine that was Garland's call. Never Let Me Go is certainly worth watching – but only after you've read Ishiguro's superior novel.

 

Dredd (2012)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

“Directed by Pete Travis,” but how can we be sure? Garland is credited here for the script alone, though it has long been rumoured that he actually directed the film, which later became known for its troubled production and made very little money at the box office. This vision of the future is one of excess and industrialisation, where the titular hero – imbued with the power of judge, jury, and executioner – roams the vast, dystopian world of Mega-City One. There is a simplicity to Dredd that marks it out as a very different kind of Garland vehicle: less about big ideas, and more a straight-forward action movie, the goal being to produce something that felt fateful to the comics.

Fans, for the most part, came away convinced he'd pulled it off. Garland's script is deceivingly simple (not to mention slyly funny), relying on minimal dialogue and an inspired floor-by-floor structure (similarities with The Raid, released the same year, were inevitable, but accidental) – not to mention the brilliant decision to pair Dredd with a rookie, played by Olivia Thirlby, giving us an audience surrogate to root for in a world gone mad.

What sounds like a deeply ugly film, morally, is gorgeous to look at, visually; inventive slow-mo scenes serve to give the film its unique aesthetic. Not to forget this is also bone-crunchingly violent, the most unashamedly pulpy film of Garland's career. And then there is Dredd himself, inhabited by Karl Urban, whose chin is left to do most of the work but channels his iconic namesake with ease. Is this, in fact, one of the great, unsung action movies of the 2010s? All evidence points to yes.

 

Ex Machina (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

What if Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz hadn't gone AWOL in the furthest jungles of Cambodia, but somewhere in the remotest region of Scandinavia, tinkering with the most dangerous technology known to man? Garland's debut as a writer-director is an ingenious sci-fi thriller that set out to probes the subject of artificial intelligence, rendered here as a kind of game between a coder and a tech genius, played by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Issac. Ex Machina is a film that thrives on its twists and turns, and its ability to pose questions about the nature of consciousness whilst constantly flipping the narrative. It's also one that fully engages with what now feels like Garland's main fixation: man's ability to push our understanding of science and the laws of the universe into terrifying places.

At the time of release, Ex Machina felt like the culmination of everything Garland's entire career had been building towards. Not only did it mark the first real occasion where Garland would fabricate a narrative from his interests in heavy scientific reading to a notable degree, but it remains unafraid to lean into the pulpy thrills, giving us the best of both words: smart sci-fi that grips.

It's here, too, that Garland proved himself to be a capable actor's director: Oscar Isaac gives arguably his best performance as a swaggeringly arrogant but charismatic tech God, whilst Alicia Vikander manages the impossible task of appearing both artificial and distinctly human at once. The rest of the film is peppered with head-scratching questions, not to mention one of the best, unexpected dance scenes in cinema history. “Fucking unreal,” intones Nathan, witnessing the genius of his own creation. No shit.

 

Annihilation (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A less literal adaptation than Never Let Me Go, Garland took the seeds of Jeff VanderMeer's acclaimed sci-fi novel, Annihilation, and used it as a springboard in order to explore themes of self-destruction and rebirth – the human capacity to push ourselves to the brink of doom in order to understand who we are, and why we do the things we do.

Like in the VanderMeer novel, the story finds a group of scientists sent to explore “The Shimmer,” a quarantined zone that is slowly expanding outwardly, threatening to destroy the entire world. Inside, plants and animals are mutating in strange ways; crocodiles have shark's teeth, plants grow in the shape of human beings. In a neat genre subversion, all our heroes are female – but it's never a “thing,” barely addressed.

This movie, perhaps, is definitively Garland in the way that it broaches big ideas but refuses to give easy answers. It's also the most surreal and mysterious of all his works, languishing in strange and often psychedelic visual manifestations – a “trip” in every sense. The film moves forward – though it adopts an unnecessary “flashback” framing device – with the mission-based objective of an Apocalypse Now, but there is nothing so linear along the way – or at its finish. Indeed, the last moments of Annihilation might be some of the most disturbing in the entire Garland canon; an encounter with an extra-terrestrial that is so strange and unnerving it scars you with its weirdness. And scars, it turns out, are what Garland does best.

Other Features

Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

From an epic documentary on female filmmakers to a quirky road trip through Bosnia, here are our picks for what to watch online...

10 of the best… road movies of the 2010s

In cinema, the open road is packed with endless possibilities and diversions: here we highlight our top picks from the last ten years...

Killing Time: Youth and Restlessness in the Films of Eliza Hittman

With the arrival of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we explore the filmmaker's uniquely woozy and melancholy teen portraits

Stream Holidays: Eight Great Films About Trips to Greece

From the infectious hedonism of Zorba the Greek to the liberating frolics of Shirley Valentine, here's our guide for the armchair traveller

Reviews

The County review – bleak class struggle in the Icelandic hinterlands

This Nordic drama can be drab and dour, but it raises interesting questions, anchored by a compelling lead performance

Take Me Somewhere Nice review – strange and stylised trip through Bosnia

Ena Sendijarević's impressive debut follows a teenager on a transformative trip through Bosnia in a bid to meet her dying father

The Lovebirds review – shouty murder-mystery settles for generic

Despite the efforts of its leads, Michael Showater's follow-up to The Big Sick falls victim to a slapdash story and familiar beats

Cassandro, The Exotico! review – entertaining portrait of a lucha libre wrestler

Marie Losier's brief documentary deals with some heavy topics but works best as a good-natured look at a unique athlete