Men Director Alex Garland Thinks All His Films Are 'Surrealist'

Director Alex Garland is venturing into the genre of folk horror for the first time with his 2022 film "Men." The highly anticipated project is a new direction for the filmmaker but will still bear many tonal similarities to his acclaimed sci-fi films, "Ex Machina" (2014) and "Annihilation" (2018).

"Men" stars indie darling Jessie Buckley as Harper, a woman who escapes to the English countryside to grieve the death of her ex-husband. Once there, she cannot shake the feeling that something is following her. The film plays with subjectivity and the supernatural to evoke fear, giving it an obvious element of surrealism. Garland's new film contains blatantly surrealist components, but the director explained that there is a dreamlike element to all of his work in a roundtable attended by /Film. He dates this creative inclination back to his 1996 novel, "The Beach," a book about a backpacker's journey through Thailand in search of a beach untouched by tourism and the modern world.

The disco sequence in Ex Machina makes viewers question everything

Garland also feels that "'Ex Machina' is full of surrealism," citing the disco sequence as a "surrealist beat" that makes the audience question the reality of the film. In the director's words, "it's like, 'what?'"

In "Ex Machina," a programmer at a huge tech firm wins a company-wide contest and gets to spend the week at the secluded compound of the eccentric CEO, helping him by acting as the human component of a Turing test on an AI robot. It is later revealed that the programmer was chosen precisely because he was the most average employee at the company. The exceedingly average worker is taken from his banal desk job and transported into the removed fantasy realm of his boss. The power dynamics in "Ex Machina" are constantly changing, so the element of surrealism reminds the audience that the realm of possibility within the film is ever-expanding.

"Annihilation," too, is rife with surrealism. The dystopian sci-fi stars Natalie Portman as a marine biologist who enters into an ever-expanding zone of an inexplicable phenomenon called "The Shimmer" from which no one, including her husband, has ever emerged alive. The zone itself is a place beyond reality where universal rules of existence are called into question. Between these two films, Garland has played extensively with surrealist elements.

Garland thinks the world itself is 'dreamlike and confusing'

This common thread in Garland's work closely reflects the director's worldview. The characters and settings within his films are alienating and strange because, in his words, "people are strange, and the [real] world is strange, and our interactions with each other are incredibly surreal... dreamlike and confusing." In this way, Garland's films access something akin to Herzog's ecstatic truth, a truth about mankind that can be revealed only through cinema (via New Yorker). The discomfort and unlikelihood of the disco sequence in "Ex Machina," to recycle this example, conveys something about the distance between the two main characters that cannot be communicated in a straightforward dialogue. 

Garland's films don't necessarily follow a straightforward cause-effect logic. This keeps the story and its characters as compelling and unpredictable as real-life — or perhaps even more so. Garland recognizes that one of the joys of cinema is that it is not bound by the limitations of reality, and incorporates that into all of his work. By departing from realism, Garland depicts the world exactly as he sees it — "slightly comic [and] slightly surreal." This unique tone is exactly what fans of Garland can expect from his upcoming project. "Men" is playing in theaters starting Friday, May 20, 2022.