The Imperiled Women of Alex Garland’s Films


It’s hard to think of a contemporary mainstream male filmmaker who consistently writes better female characters than Alex Garland. Before his directorial career began, he primarily focused on stories about men: his novel The Beach (which was adapted for the Leonardo DiCaprio film) and the screenplays to “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd.” It certainly wasn’t as if he was incapable of writing women—“28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” are both excellent in this regard—but since stepping behind the camera, it’s striking how often his films have featured female leads and questions of gender equality. Even more impressive is that—except for one glaring exception (and, for the record, I think it works in that movie)—Garland’s films tend to be fairly subtle in their handling of these issues. He never stoops to reducing his women to Strong Female Characters. 

Over the last decade-plus, there’s been much conversation about the Strong Female Character, Hollywood’s attempt to compensate for generations of male-driven action movies by occasionally letting a woman take the lead. Blockbusters such as “The Hunger Games” and “Wonder Woman” were encouraging signs of progress, but the trope quickly became a cliché, these types of roles slowly turning into a monolith. And audiences grew restless. As novelist and playwright Sophia McDougall put it in The New Statesman back in 2013, “What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? … I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative.” 

When the concept of the Strong Female Character started gaining popularity, it wasn’t necessarily meant to indicate that these protagonists had to be physically strong—just that they were layered and involving in the same way that their male counterparts were. But kicking ass soon became more important than any other characteristic. Years after Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” demonstrated what a great Strong Female Character could look like—she even got an Oscar nomination—the dimensionality got stripped away, the Strong Female Character simplified into the lifeless “empowered” avatars we saw played by the likes of Brie Larson.

Garland’s thoughtful women occasionally do shoot guns or wreck shit. “Ex Machina,” “Annihilation,” “Men” and his latest, “Civil War,” are set in very different universes in which very different types of women have to navigate worlds in which they don’t feel safe—for very different reasons. Sometimes they’re up against an alien menace. Sometimes it’s a strange stalker. Sometimes it’s the fact that American democracy is imploding. Regardless of the circumstance, for his characters to survive, they’re required to go far beyond being “strong.” Unfortunately, that’s what’s so jarring—and, ultimately, disappointing—about “Civil War”: It’s the first time Garland has viewed one of his heroines so narrowly.

But before we discuss where Garland went wrong with his new film, let’s look back to what he’s done right in the past. His 2014 directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” might superficially feel like a sci-fi thriller you’ve seen many times. It’s about an arrogant tech super-genius, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has created a robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), that he’s sure he controls—on cue, though, he will be disabused of this notion as his creation breaks free. But it’s the specifics that made “Ex Machina” chilling.

Specifically, it was Garland’s decision to conceive Ava as shapely and desirable. To be sure, there have been several alluring female robots over the history of sci-fi—the subservient android women of “The Stepford Wives,” the idealistic Maria in “Metropolis.” But Garland was after something spikier: Adorned with Vikander’s beautiful face, “Ex-Machina”’s attractive robot was clearly the product of Nathan’s horny, megalomaniac, misogynistic mindset. (Tellingly, Nathan’s obedient personal assistant, played by Sonoya Mizuno, is also a good-looking android.) But unlike past cinematic robot beauties, Ava won’t be held in check by her male creator for long. When one of Nathan’s programmers—the bright but sweet and timid Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)—is invited to his compound to study Ava to determine if she has achieved genuine consciousness, she quickly seduces Caleb, who falls for her. But are Ava’s feelings real? Or are they part of a scheme to escape?

Garland envisioned Ava as attractive not just to concoct a prickly love story but to comment on gender inequality within a sci-fi/Frankenstein narrative. “The thing about female objectification is that it’s sort of inarguable that it happens,” Garland told “There’s no real debate to have about it, it’s just so obvious. The film is definitely interested in aspects of that. The key thing about female objectification is that it creates a block that prevents you from thinking about what is actually going on inside the mind of the thing that you’re objectifying. … I like the idea that there is this obstacle preventing viewers from thinking about what is going on inside the mind of this machine that looks like a girl in her early twenties.”

Brilliantly played by Vikander, who portrays the character as varying shades of innocent, beguiling and calculating, Ava may not ostensibly be the film’s main character, but she’s unquestionably its most complex. In “Ex Machina,” we study her, just like Caleb does, unaware that Ava is working us. Eventually, Ava flees the literal prison of the male gaze in which she finds herself trapped, outsmarting Caleb and Nathan—not to mention the viewer thanks to the twists in Garland’s script. In Garland’s directorial debut, Ava’s attractiveness is a feint that forces straight male viewers to recognize how much they don’t see when they’re gawking at beauty. Caleb and Nathan never learn who the real Ava is, leading to their downfall. We’re often conditioned to fear the A.I. character in a sci-fi film—Garland and Vikander got audiences to root for her.

Questions of gender were woven into Garland’s next film as well, which remains his finest. Released in 2018 after some internal clashes—financier David Ellison thought the movie was too intellectual and remote, demanding changes (which, thankfully, didn’t happen)—“Annihilation” bombed but quickly became a beloved cult item. Starring Natalie Portman alongside Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, the movie (based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel) chronicled an unknown alien presence that has crash-landed in Florida, creating a mysterious realm known as the Shimmer that humans have tried, unsuccessfully, to explore. After Lena’s (Portman) soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac)—who she had begun to feel distant from because of problems in their marriage—returns home barely alive from one such expedition, she and three fellow scientists/doctors (Leigh, Rodriguez and Thompson) enter the Shimmer to determine what happened to Kane.

Part action film, part horror movie, “Annihilation” (which draws heavily from Tarkovsky’s existential sci-fi drama “Stalker”) sees its female characters battle frightening creatures and fire weapons, but Garland didn’t want the headlines to be “Girls Star in Typical Guy Film.” “They happen to be women. There’s no great discussion of it in the film,” he said. “I’m not planning to do any great discussion of it promoting the film. It’s actually the absence of discussion that I think is more interesting.” 

Indeed, “Annihilation” comments on feminism by not commenting on it, flipping “Stalker”’s premise by having its protagonists be women, whereas Tarkovsky populated his odyssey with brooding men. Garland doesn’t include a single scene in which skeptical men wonder how these ladies are going to pull off their mission. Lena and her colleagues never have to prove their value—they’re all supremely capable. (In fact, Lena is a former soldier herself.) In the process, Garland compiles a collection of Strong Female Characters who are strong in both senses—vividly rendered but also skilled fighters. And they’re never depicted as simplistic superheroes—they occasionally make mistakes, which sometimes prove fatal, and they understandably freak out at appropriate moments. (The mutant bear scene may be the single scariest film moment of the last 10 years.) 

Because Garland and his actors insist on these female protagonists remaining flawed, vulnerable humans, “Annihilation” is that rare mainstream action film to explore deeper issues, such as loss, commitment, acceptance and regret. Garland is as invested in these women’s emotional lives as he is the terrors that await them. They’re not just navigating the Shimmer, they’re each coming to terms with something unresolved in their life, finding closure in the most extraordinary of settings—especially Lena. If we accept the retrograde gender stereotype that insists dudes want movies with spectacle while ladies want movies about feelings, Garland cannily crafted an incredible mutation of the two. How many action flicks are also a haunting examination of marriage and grief?

If the Strong Female Characters of Garland’s first two films—and the accompanying observations on masculinity—avoided being too overt in their commentary, he went wildly in the opposite direction for his follow-up. “With ‘Men,’ I just sort of thought, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna go straight into this,’” Garland admitted, later adding, “[I]nstead of running underneath, it sits there on the surface.”

As unsubtle as its title and released two years after Garland’s TV series “Devs,” “Men” is an intense, sometimes darkly funny folk-horror film about Harper (Jessie Buckley), a widowed woman who journeys to the English countryside to escape the pain of her husband’s mysterious, shocking death. (We’ll get details about that in flashbacks.) Harper just wants some peace, but she’ll discover that this village is filled with men (all played by Rory Kinnear) who are different degrees of creepy and/or menacing. Alone in a big, secluded house, she becomes fearful of a disturbing naked man looming outside the premises, but even the community’s more seemingly respectable males—including a judgmental priest who insists her husband’s death is her fault—seem to be out to get her. 

Men aren’t just problematic in “Men”—they’re monsters—and while some criticized Garland for the obviousness of his points, I thought the film worked because of how relentless, imaginative and terrifying he made those obvious points. There’s a playfulness to casting Kinnear as all of these different men—even a bratty boy—that winks at the knowing absurdity and on-the-nose commentary. And Buckley is terrific as a woman processing intense trauma who quickly realizes even worse trauma is heading her way. 

Women are often the leads in horror movies—think of Jamie Lee Curtin in “Halloween,” Shelley Duvall in “The Shining” or Neve Campbell in “Scream”—and with “Men,” Buckley became part of this cinematic tradition. But Harper’s peril is as much about the weird men in this hellish village as it is about getting to the roots of her husband’s death. (The audience learns that he was abusive, and when he tried to make amends, she understandably rebuffed him, prompting him to impulsively jump to his death. The dead husband eventually makes his return during the film’s harrowing finale, emerging as just one more iteration of the demanding, disturbing men who want something from Harper.) 

Although Buckley is a wonder at being horrified and fighting for her life, there’s a deeper metaphysical aspect at work in “Men.” Whether consciously or not, Garland continually foregrounds female characters whose external battles are connected to larger societal factors or intimate emotional wounds. Granted, he’s hardly the first filmmaker to marry a protagonist’s outer struggles to his or her inner pain, but what is notable is that he always ensures his female leads push beyond the stereotypes of that particular kind of character. Ava is no pliable robot beauty. Lena is a conflicted wife, genius scientist and also a warrior. And Harper is no generic scream queen—she’s not facing off with a killer but, rather, toxic masculinity itself.

Maybe that’s why, despite its considerable achievements and audacity, “Civil War” feels like Garland’s first misstep. It’s not the only reason why his dystopian thriller about a future America embroiled in a violent civil war falters, but his inability to conceive his main character in compelling terms dooms the film. For once, he has given us a clichéd Strong Female Character. 

You can’t fault Kirsten Dunst, who’s believably tough as nails as Lee, a seasoned war photographer who’s traveled the world documenting bloodshed. Now, though, Lee has come home, shooting an America that’s tearing itself apart. Nonetheless, her gritty professionalism remains—as far as she’s concerned, it’s just another war zone—and she wants to make it to Washington, D.C. in time to get some killer photos of the imminent fall of the U.S. government. There’s a job to do, and she’s the best in her field.

Lee is as skilled as any Garland heroine, but he’s never before seemed so uninterested in his protagonist’s inner life. Instead, he just wants to feed her into a formulaic storyline. Early on in “Civil War,” Garland pairs her with Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), a fresh-faced aspiring photojournalist who’s long admired Lee. Naturally, Lee doesn’t want to bring this kid along—war zones aren’t an ideal place to babysit—but in one of the film’s several convoluted moments, she is talked into it by the rest of her team. Why does Lee acquiesce? Because it allows Garland to craft a predictable character arc: Slowly but surely, the no-nonsense journalist will take naive Jessie under her wing, coming to care about her and practically serving as a mentor for this young woman. Lee has chosen work over a personal life—in “Civil War,” she will get a sense of what it’s like to be a mother.

There’s something potentially intriguing about that idea—an examination of how accomplished professional women struggle to “have it all”—but Garland hasn’t thought through the conceit. This is a problem across “Civil War,” which is murky in its exploration of journalism and slapdash in its handling of its characters. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s veteran reporter, who’s physically impaired, miraculously becomes an action hero when the situation requires him to run over deranged militia members with his car. Wagner Moura’s cynical, seen-it-all journalist suddenly gets incredibly emotional during that same scene when a colleague is gunned down. (Surely this isn’t the first time in his storied career that he’s witnessed such a terrible moment.) 

But Lee is especially disappointing because we’ve become accustomed to Garland poking holes in the Strong Female Character archetype, coming up with smarter, more engaging alternatives. Lee doesn’t have to grapple with overt sexism—America’s going to hell, so there are more pressing dangers awaiting her—but she also isn’t facing the internal dilemmas or societal/gender ills that have impacted Garland’s previous heroines. In their place is a telegraphed trajectory for Lee that’s thoroughly phony. Just as Jessie starts to find her footing as a war photographer—feeling blazingly alive in the midst of firefights and near-death experiences—Lee predictably begins to shut down, the cumulative effect of all those battlefields and the trauma of seeing a war-torn America proving too much for her. But Lee’s mental disintegration seems arbitrary—something that has to happen because Garland needs it to.

In the past, Garland always let his women call the shots—their desires or their fears drove the action—but in “Civil War,” he pushes Lee around the chessboard to make glib points. The film’s big ideas—about America’s implacable divisions; about the ways that Americans indifferently view overseas war zones, confident that such problems could never happen here—overshadow the characters. Lee is superficially strong, but she’s mostly a cipher. When she finally arrives in D.C. during a violent siege, she tries to snap out of her shell-shocked state—the pro has, for once, let emotions get in the way—but it’s fairly obvious that Garland is building to a grand “tragic” moment in which she will unwittingly sacrifice herself to protect Jessie. Lee isn’t a person—she’s an ironic symbol of what happens when a supposedly dispassionate journalist develops a conscience. She’s meant to elicit our sympathy, but Garland hasn’t bothered to give her the layers he’s so skillfully provided his earlier female characters. 

That’s a shame, although it doesn’t negate the array of indelible roles he’s written for women over the last 10 years. Ava, Lena and Harper’s competence, strength and brilliance are never viewed as remarkable—it’s just who they are. But “Civil War” is the first time Garland has failed to look beyond his protagonist’s bold surface. He of all people should know that the complexity of a great female character is more than skin-deep. 

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