“Ex Machina”, “Annihilation”, and the Beautiful Apocalypse

Ex Machina Annihilation Ava in Ex Machina / Lena in Annihilation

Alex Garland’s contemplative sci-fi stories imagine a world where destruction and liberation go hand in hand.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” – Revelations 21:1

As a teenager, I spent a brief stint delving into the works of HP Lovecraft. My favorite story, right from the start, was 1927’s The Colour Out of Space: a meandering, zombie-like creepfest about a farm that falls prey to the radiation given off by a fallen meteorite. At first, the impact makes the local vegetation bloom in beautiful, alien colors; but by the end, the land falls to ash and ruin, and the family which once worked the farm is reduced to a series of shambling irradiated horrors.

And yet, even when everything recognizable has been swept away from the farm, there remains a new kind of creation — a new set of laws that govern the land and the beings that creep within it. It may be alien to the reader, but there is no denying that the “blasted heath” of the story follows some kind of proprietary logic:

“The rural tales are queer. They might be even queerer if city men and college chemists could be interested enough to analyse the water from that disused well, or the grey dust that no wind seems ever to disperse. […] People say the colour of the neighbouring herbage is not quite right in the spring, and that wild things leave queer prints in the light winter snow.”

There is a thin line here between creation and apocalypse. Even beyond the realm of fiction, simple laws of thermodynamics prevent anything from being created out of nothing; ergo, all created things necessitate the destruction of whatever came before. In order to create new alien physics, a farm must be destroyed. This is the natural order of things, reflected on the scale of cosmic horror.

The horror part of that genre is reflected in the radiation’s effect on a human family. Lovecraft’s story tries to address what happens when we, as mortal beings, are brought into contact with permanent change on environmental, physical, and mental levels. He’s neither the first nor the last person to do so.

Annihilation‘s Twisted New Kingdom

Alex Garland (writer-director of Ex Machina and Annihilation) also attempts to address questions of creation, destruction, and human existentialism. His responses to human mortality deserve examination, positioned as they are within a great legacy of apocalypse myth, and given that his work is both sizably budgeted and critically acclaimed.

It’s easy to identify Annihilation as belonging to the same vein as Lovecraft’s story. In Annihilation, as in Colour, a group of people find themselves under the influence of an alien force that morphs their bodies and minds into horrific and unrecognizable shapes (I am not the first to note the clear echoes of the former work in the latter). Still, there are also some key differences between the two. Namely, Garland’s film does far more to portray the apocalyptic Shimmer as beautiful in its own right, as well as to link its created beauty with the world it destroyed in the process.

Ex Machina Annihilation

Annihilation is undoubtedly an apocalyptic story: its characters spend their time in the Shimmer terrified and lost, and the two who make their way back out are forever changed, shells (or worse) of their former selves. Time and again, viewers are reminded that the Shimmer is mutating everything it touches — making fingerprints move, creating monstrous hybrids, driving humans insane. Through Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, we learn early on that the Shimmer lies somewhere beyond the continuum of what is natural or unnatural, beyond terminology or comprehension.

But it’s also beautiful. In the Shimmer, sunlight twists and refracts into a thousand colors. A cornucopia of radically different flowers blossoms from the same vine. Even when one character decides to end her life, she does so gracefully, shifting Daphne-like into the living landscape. It is a world completely hostile to our understanding of nature, but we cannot deny its beauty. The old earth has passed away. The new kingdom is established.

The other thing that makes the Shimmer stand apart from its Lovecraftian predecessor is the degree to which Garland recognizes the parasitic relationship between the old world and new. The Shimmer is beyond comprehension, yes, but it uses recognizable nature as its building blocks. Trees grow in the shapes of people, but they’re still trees, and they still look like people. More literally, the intestines that wriggle inside the stomach of a soldier can’t help but plant the word tapeworm in the viewer’s mind. 

Ex Machina Annihilation

This is an apocalypse that cannibalizes the object of destruction and repurposes its parts in the object of creation. As Josie notes with the radio signals: our world isn’t being blocked. It’s being scrambled.

But this parasitic apocalypse is not simply commandeering our world; rather, it is born from our world. At the film’s climax, the Shimmer’s floating physical manifestation uses Lena’s blood to clone a body for itself. In a harrowing parody of what we recognize as life, its womblike structure creates complexity from the multiplying of a single cell. Garland shows us early on that the process that creates new life is also the process that creates cancer, and his work is ultimately about that concept taken to its most extreme.

Annihilation is a large-scale example of Garland’s fascination with the relationship between creation, apocalypse, and humanity’s role in those processes. Ex Machina, on the other hand, makes these questions far more personal.

Ex Machina and the Inversion of the Creation Myth

Ex Machina Annihilation

Garland’s 2015 debut as a writer-director is, by all accounts, the more successful venture. The characters are more nuanced, and its thriller elements trace a more subtle line to their natural conclusion. That subtlety also hides its apocalyptic nature: even in a story set on a nearly uninhabited island and concerned with only two lives, Garland weaves a thread through twin tensions — the end of the world we know, and the start of what comes afterward.

From the outset, the film frames tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) as a narcissist with good reasons for being a narcissist. His pet project, AI bot Ava (Alicia Vikander), recalls Eve, the mythical first woman. Nathan frames himself as a benevolent God, forming creations in his own image and imbuing them with life. The rest of the film, then, is concerned with the ramifications of such a creation, and ultimately reveals Nathan’s hubris in thinking himself immune to the very human flaws, schemes, and free will of his human-like offspring.

Ex Machina is, on the surface level, an inverted creation story. What if, the film asks, the Garden of Eden wasn’t a paradise, but a prison? What if the punishment for original sin fell on the creator rather than the created? But the questions surrounding Nathan’s creation mask the underlying apocalypse this creation necessitates. Just as with Annihilation, the cost of Ava’s brave new world is paid in the lives of those who come into contact with it.

Ava, like the Shimmer, is born from refractions and remixes of the recognizable world. She looks human, sometimes, if you hide the whirring machinery and encasing mesh. She has sexuality or at least knows how to imitate it. Her mind is made of information pulled from search engines and cell phones, the thoughts of real people filtered through inorganic technology. 

Even the film’s Turing test premise hinges on Ava’s ability to act human, even when she is clearly something else. She represents a balancing act between the familiar and the otherworldly, and therein lies the danger.

Most obviously, Ex Machina‘s apocalypse comes at the climax, with the confirmed death of Nathan and implied death of the trapped Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). This apocalypse has a scope suited to the setting: this island is the film’s whole world, and that world is over now that its gods have fallen. 

What if, the film asks, the Garden of Eden wasn’t a paradise, but a prison? What if the punishment for original sin fell on the creator rather than the created?

But we can see the dissolution of the recognizable world long before this. Ava’s destructive nature lies in the fact that she, a perfect artificial person, forces the humans around her to question what their own personhood means. The scene where Caleb cuts his own arm open, searching for some hidden machinery, showcases this destabilization in action. When confronted with a reality so intimately alien, how can you continue to trust anything familiar?

Even after Ava leaves the island and ventures into the wider world, we can’t help but view her as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If she’s managed to bring this much death and destruction to just two lives, who knows what she’ll do in a city? Ava-as-apocalypse exists alongside Ava-as-creation; the two can’t be separated.

The script is filled with lines that call attention to this duality. Nathan notes that “one day the AIs are gonna look back at us the same way we look at fossil skeletons,” implying that he is aware of (and even complicit in) the risks associated with his pet project. In another scene, Caleb quotes Oppenheimer, likening Ava’s existence to the nuclear bomb – impressive and elegant, to be sure, but deadly too.

In middle school, before my brush with Lovecraft, my church youth group was presented a lengthy series of sermons on Revelations: the prophesied wreckage of the Christian apocalypse, and the promises of a better world to come. I remember being deeply confused by the supposed glory of this promise: how could I welcome the creation of the next world if it involved the utter destruction of everything good in this one?

Humans are narcissistic storytellers. We demand that our stories cater to human emotions and thoughts, and our horror stories imagine enemies that are simply unconcerned with human life. The line between a creation myth and an apocalypse is therefore often a simple matter of perspective: is humanity part of the old world, or the new? 

Ava and the Shimmer are two beautiful cataclysms, both alien to human life while using aspects of that life to sustain themselves. In Garland’s films, humans are a piece of the old world, discarded in favor of a new normal that lies beyond our tiny comprehension.

And there is nothing more terrifying than feeling small.

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