For the longest time, I never thought of Alex Garland as a particularly pro-woman director. Sure, his film Annihilation features an almost entirely female cast, but that doesn’t really have much impact on the story. It feels more like happenstance than anything else, so as far as I was concerned, Garland wasn’t too different from any other director in his concern for women.
But then I saw his latest film, Men, and everything changed. That movie is all about the various ways men can abuse and mistreat women, and it got me thinking about the rest of his filmography. I eventually came to see his other movies in a whole different light, and I realized that the dignity of women is actually a major concern of his. His latest movie made it more explicit, but if you look carefully, you can find it in his other two films as well.
And when I finally realized that, it made me love Alex Garland even more. The dignity of women is a big concern of mine as well, so seeing this great theme in Garland’s films allowed me to connect with them on a deeper level than I ever had before. It was one of the best cinematic discoveries of my life, so let’s dive right into these great movies and see how they promote this important message.
Let’s start with Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina. It’s about a computer programmer named Caleb Smith who wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan Bateman, the CEO of his company, and he’s tasked with assessing whether a newly developed robot named Ava is truly sentient. Admittedly, the first time I saw this film, I didn’t think it had anything to do with women. I thought it was just about artificial intelligence, and to be fair, I wasn’t completely wrong. After all, the entire story revolves around a guy trying to figure out if a robot possesses genuine sentience, so the movie can’t help but at least raise questions about AI.
But if we dig a bit deeper, we’ll find that there’s so much more to this film than just that. Significantly, Ava is female, and as the story progresses, we learn that Nathan made several other robots before her, all of them female as well. That clues us in that the movie is actually about the way men treat women, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
Predictably, Nathan treats his robots like objects rather than people, and while that seems fairly logical (after all, robots are objects), Alex Garland does a great job of making you feel for these AI women. Nathan exploits them sexually with absolutely no concern for their well-being, and there’s even a scene where one of them angrily asks why he won’t let her out of her tiny apartment. Her words give off serious human trafficking vibes, so it’s not hard to grasp the real point of Ex Machina: Nathan represents the various ways men objectify and sexually exploit women.
Now, that’s fairly easy to see, but it leaves us with a question: How does Caleb fit into this? He helps Ava escape her imprisonment, so we might be tempted to think he’s a good guy who respects women. However, the end of the film doesn’t allow for that interpretation. Nathan is ultimately killed for abusing his robots, so if Caleb were innocent, we’d expect him to get a much happier ending than his boss. But he doesn’t. Instead, when Ava finally breaks free at the end of the movie, she locks Caleb in a room inside Nathan’s house, and the story ends with him unable to get out.
He gets punished too, so he must also objectify and exploit women in some way. But how? It’s not easy to see, but if we pay really close attention, there’s a line toward the end that explains it for us. Caleb figures out that Ava’s physical appearance was based on his “pornography profile,” and that’s our smoking gun. See, most people today think of porn as just harmless entertainment, but that’s not actually the case.
For starters, the porn industry has some very dark links to sex trafficking. Even supposedly reputable companies often traffic women to make their content, so when you watch porn, you can’t really know if the sex in it is consensual. It very well might be, but you could also end up unwittingly furthering a woman’s abuse by watching her get raped on camera.
And even if the sex in a porn video is consensual, that still doesn’t mean it’s unobjectionable. By its very nature, porn reduces women to sexual objects, so when men view porn, they subtly train themselves to see all women that way. Think of it like this. If you spend enough time doing something, it’ll become second nature, and objectifying women is no different.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that everybody who watches porn is a bad person. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people who view porn don’t actually want to contribute to sex trafficking and our culture’s disturbing objectification of women. So my point isn’t people who watch porn are bad. Rather, it’s that porn itself is bad, and when we watch it, we unwittingly entangle ourselves in an insidious web of abuse and objectification.
And the way I see it, that’s exactly why Caleb was punished along with Nathan in Ex Machina. Sure, he didn’t intentionally exploit women as his boss did, but by watching porn, he unknowingly participated in that same kind of abuse and objectification (just in a different way). He shows us that the web of sexual exploitation is much deeper and much more pervasive than we might think, so if we’re serious about respecting women’s dignity, we have to avoid all forms of objectification and abuse, even the subtle ones we might not recognize at first.
Next, let’s move on to Alex Garland’s second film, Annihilation, a sci-fi/horror mashup about a group of women who investigate the Shimmer, a quarantined area where an extraterrestrial presence causes plants and animals to mutate in some very strange and terrifying ways. Like I said before, this movie features an almost all-female cast (and its one male star isn’t really part of the main story!), but on a narrative level, nothing in it seems particularly pro-woman. The fact that these are women rather than men doesn’t make that much difference to the story, so their gender feels more like a coincidence than anything else.
But it’s not. Even though it doesn’t make much of a narrative difference, it still makes a very big thematic point. See, in most other movies, the intrepid explorers who risk their lives to explore a mysterious and deadly phenomenon would almost certainly be men, so by having these characters be women, Alex Garland is making a point about female equality. He’s saying that women can do the job just as well as men, and that alone makes this film very pro-woman.
And in case there’s any doubt about that message, Lena, the main character, seals the deal for us. She’s the only person to ever make it out of the Shimmer alive (her husband doesn’t count because we eventually find out that it’s not really him), and she even destroys the alien threat and stops it from taking over the entire world. Again, in most other movies, the person who does that would almost certainly be a man, so by giving this role in the story to a woman, Alex Garland is hammering home the point that women are just as capable as men.
Admittedly, that’s just a very general, almost surface-level sort of pro-woman message. It doesn’t tackle any controversial issues or point out any specific problems in our society today (at least in Western society), so it’s not quite as thought-provoking as what we get in Ex Machina or Men. But it’s still important. The general concept of women’s equality is the indispensable foundation of the deeper questions Alex Garland explores in his other two films, so even though Annihilation focuses primarily on other themes, it still displays the director’s ardent concern for women’s dignity and worth.
Last but not least, we have Alex Garland’s latest film, Men. This is his only straight-up horror movie, and it’s about a woman named Harper who travels to the English countryside after her husband commits suicide. At first, this seems like the perfect place to heal from her trauma, but the vacation goes south very quickly. All the men there treat her in belittling and abusive ways, and by the end of it, her trip turns into a bizarre supernatural nightmare.
Even if you’ve never seen Men, the title and premise alone should make its message pretty obvious. The film is about the various ways men abuse and belittle women, and every male character in it represents a different form of misogynistic mistreatment. To take just one example, there’s a scene where Harper meets a boy sitting outside a church, and he asks her to play hide and seek. She declines and says she’s not in the mood, and he immediately becomes angry. He insists that he wants to play with her, and when he finally gives up and walks away, he calls Harper a “stupid bitch.”
This kid clearly represents all the men who think women somehow owe them their time and attention, and the parallel is pretty on the nose. Granted, most men don’t just want to play hide and seek, but the general attitude this boy displays is all too common. A lot of men today think that if they’re nice to a woman or if they do something for her, they’re owed something (usually sex) in return, but that’s not how life works.
Women aren’t objects or slaves that men can simply demand things from, so no matter how much a man may want something from a woman, she’s under no obligation to give it to him. And if a man doesn’t get what he wants, he has to accept the woman’s right to make her own decisions and then move on with his life.
That’s just one example, but Men is packed to the brim with similarly misogynistic moments. In fact, the entire story is basically just a bunch of men mistreating the female main character, so it can seem a little simplistic on the surface. But if we dig a bit deeper, we’ll find that there’s actually more to it than meets the eye.
Most notably, all the men in the village are played by the same actor, Rory Kinnear, and that’s really significant. It shows us that the various ways these male characters mistreat Harper are just different forms of the same vice. They all stem from the same dehumanizing and objectifying view of women, so even though they may look very different on the outside, they’re all just various expressions of the same inner attitude.
And at the end of the day, I think that’s the main point Alex Garland is trying to make in Men. He’s showing us that misogyny comes in many different shapes and sizes, so we men need to be careful not to fool ourselves into thinking we respect women just because we’re not as bad as the next guy. Sure, we may not mistreat women the same way someone else does, but if we want to be truly pro-woman, we have to root out all forms of mistreatment and abuse from our lives, not just the ones we also see in other people.