Where to begin with Alex Garland

From Gen X novelist to big-budget genre auteur, we join the dots through writer-director Alex Garland’s ambitious work in movies and video games.

15 April 2024

By George Bass

The Beach (2000)

Why this might not seem so easy

Despite recently announcing his intention to stop directing movies for the foreseeable future, novelist, scriptwriter, comic adapter and video game story doctor Alex Garland has worn so many hats that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where his screen career began. His cinematic 1996 novel The Beach was described as “furiously intelligent”, and earmarked the then-26-year-old Garland as a leading literary voice of Generation X (something he expressed discomfort with).

Civil War (2024)

A Hollywood adaptation was inevitable, and came complete with shoehorned happy ending and the story’s English protagonist replaced with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Beach (2000) might not be the best jumping-off point for Garland’s work, but it sets up a theme that the writer would return to: modern society facing an existential threat. Cinemagoers can see the trope played out again in his new film Civil War (2024), where Garland imagines the US collapsing into four warring factions – Loyalists, the Florida Alliance, the New People’s Army and the Western Forces – all of whom are battling for control of North America.

Like Civil War’s smartphone-toting insurrectionists and The Beach’s backpacker hero Richard (DiCaprio), Garland grew up in front of a screen. The opening lines of his debut novel quote Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Fellow travellers encountered by Richard are named after Looney Tunes characters. His barely-controlled death wish is something he likens to getting the ‘Game Over’ screen in beat ’em up Street Fighter II (1991).

This connecting thread of gruesome nerdiness continues through Garland’s work as well as through the output he most enjoys himself (in an interview Garland stated his favourite narrative video games are 2007’s BioShock and 2013’s The Last of Us; their connecting theme of the societal collapse can be seen in his second film as director, 2018’s cosmic sci-fi Annihilation). 

Despite The Beach’s rocky journey to the screen, Garland would agree to an adaptation of his second novel, 1998’s The Tesseract. Oxide Pang’s 2003 movie may lack some of the polish of its Hollywood predecessor, but by the time of its development Garland had all the groundwork he needed to undertake an original script of his own – one which would result in perhaps the biggest splash of his career to date.

The best place to start – 28 Days Later

Inspired by both the Resident Evil video game series as well as the cosy catastrophes imagined by novelist John Wyndham, 28 Days Later (2002) is both a gripping genre film and a cinematic comeback for Garland and The Beach director Danny Boyle. The plot is simple enough: injured bike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma to find the UK has been swept by a killer virus. London is silent, and the only thing moving on its streets is hordes of rampaging ‘infected’.

These aren’t the shuffling, easily avoidable brain-eaters of Night of the Living Dead (1968): they’re frenzied sprinters whose bloodlust compels them to run across minefields. Like the ‘Shimmer’ entity in Annihilation, they’re also capable of mimicking human behaviour, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s human and who wants to absorb you into a malevolent hive-mind.

28 Days Later (2002)

As with The Beach, a charismatic leader (Christopher Eccleston) offers uninfected survivors a retreat as well as a solution to the outbreak – one so immoral that even a zombie would balk at it. Teaming up with Naomie Harris’s streetwise chemist, Jim must confront his own inner rage and find out whether the zombie plague is unique to England or whether it’s managed to cross the Channel or the Atlantic.

Garland would serve as an uncredited script doctor on the film’s sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), which sees London undergoing a post-zombie clean-up and what happens when the rage virus evolves. It may not have been as well-received as the original, but it was compelling enough to sow the seeds for a third film, which Boyle and Garland recently confirmed as entering production. It will be interesting to see how a post-post-zombie, post-pandemic outbreak movie lands. 

What to watch next 

Ex Machina (2014)

Following a second collaboration with Boyle – 2007’s Sunshine, which imagines scientists reigniting a dying sun – Garland made the jump to director with Ex Machina (2014), netting an Oscar nomination for best screenplay along the way. The threat to humankind this time comes not from infection, colonisation or consumerism but from something we’ve built to help protect us against both: artificial intelligence.

Domhnall Gleeson plays programmer Caleb Smith, who’s invited to document billionaire genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) and the unveiling of his latest creation: android Ava (Alicia Vikander). Her operating system allows her to interpret human emotions. As she begs her new guest to free her from her inventor’s underground prison, Smith has to ask himself a question faced by Deckard of Blade Runner (1982) and Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 (1991): should I listen to my instincts or to the machine?

Garland would explore this theme again in his TV project Devs (2020) for FX. When a cybersecurity operative suddenly vanishes from the quantum computing manufacturer that employs him, the analyst’s girlfriend (Sonoya Mizuno) must battle deepfakes, real assassins and government-level double-dealing as she attempts to uncover the game-changing tech that people will kill for, and that’s sparked an international game of cat-and-mouse.

Devs (2020)

If you like your dystopias a little more rugged, Garland serves as screenwriter (and according to reports an uncredited director) on Dredd (2012), the second big-screen adaption of the 2000 AD comic strip. Karl Urban grimaces over any campy memories of the 1995 movie as he blasts through a tower block in post-apocalyptic Mega-City One, echoing Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) as he guns down marauders who are protecting a drug kingpin.

Where not to start

Garland was invited to co-write the story to 2013’s reboot of the Devil May Cry video game franchise. He did a fine job in helping to shift the demon-slaying action to Limbo City – a human metropolis controlled by hidden forces – but the relatively short single-player campaign might make newcomers feel that, like the writer-director himself, they’d be happier endlessly mashing buttons in Street Fighter II.

Garland’s third feature as director is Men (2022), a rural chiller in which widow Jessie Buckley heads to the Herefordshire countryside and comes up against a wall of unwanted male attention. Featuring tropes such as the slippery landlord, the ex’s ghost and the cop who might be siding with locals, it’s not Garland at his most subtle, and never explains why each of the villagers Buckley encounters is played by the chameleonic Rory Kinnear. But despite more mixed reviews, it remains a fascinating twist on Garland’s typical preoccupations, giving us another taut and credible scenario in which a malignant force – in this case, an apparent flaw within the male psyche that causes all men to behave diabolically – is threatening to subdue or destroy the protagonist.

Civil War is in cinemas,  including BFI IMAX, now. Garland joins us for a screening and Q&A at BFI IMAX on 19 April.

Other things to explore