Alex Garland’s career evolution, from Gen X literary darling to big-budget sci-fi auteur

With latest film Civil War his most ambitious yet, we trace the unlikely path he took to reach his current heights

British director Alex Garland started his career as a novelist, with his debut The Beach published in 1996. AFP
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The number of successful authors who become equally successful filmmakers is small. In this exclusive club we can see names such as Paul Schrader, Miranda July, David Mamet and Clive Barker.

In recent years, perhaps the most successful has been Alex Garland. Having started his career with the underground hit novel The Beach in 1996, later adapted to film by director Danny Boyle, Garland soon turned to scriptwriting, before making the leap to directing.

With the release of his latest film Civil War, we look back at the career of Garland, 53, and how he became one of the most unique directors in Hollywood.

The voice of Gen X

Born in London in 1970, Garland was the son of a psychologist mother and a political cartoonist father. His grandfather on his mother’s side is famous biologist Sir Peter Medawar. After graduating with an Art History degree from the University of Manchester, Garland started backpacking in Europe and Thailand.

These backpacking trips inspired his first novel, The Beach, released in 1996, about a group of like-minded young people who find themselves a slice of heaven on an island in Thailand. The novel deals in themes of independence, substance abuse and tribalism.

The subversive book was a cult hit, spreading via word of mouth to ultimately turn Garland into one of the poster boys of the young authors of Generation X.

The novel’s success was followed by a big-screen adaptation directed by Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film was a box office success, making more than $140 million worldwide in ticket sales.

Garland’s second novel, The Tesseract, was released in 1998 and then adapted to film in 2003. Directed by Hong Kong duo Danny Pang Phat and Oxide Pang Chun, the film starred Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and did not enjoy the same success as The Beach.

Screenwriting for Danny Boyle

After The Beach, Garland and Boyle reunited to work on two films, the first of which was zombie horror film 28 Days Later starring Cillian Murphy in 2002. The film is credited with reviving the zombie genre, the effects of which are still felt in pop culture today. The second was Sunshine in 2007, a science fiction film starring Rose Byrne, Chris Evans and Hiroyuki Sanada.

Both films allowed Garland to explore their genres, horror and science fiction, and contributed to the writer’s rising stock in Hollywood.

28 Days Later in particular became Garland's calling card, growing in popularity after its successful theatrical run to become a home video favourite, later spawning a popular sequel.

Revitalising a British pulp classic

After a break of several years, Garland returned with the script for the cult favourite Dredd in 2012. Directed by Pete Travis, the film is an adaptation of the famous British comic book character. The film stars Karl Urban as Judge Dredd.

Despite falling short of recouping its $50 million budget in worldwide ticket sales, the film found some popularity in home video sales, making around $20 million more by 2017, though it never became a financial success.

Nevertheless, many enjoyed the film for its unique visual style. Mixing 1980s action cinema with modern editing techniques, it was also noted for capturing the British dark humour present in the character’s comic book stories.

Stepping into the director's chair

After writing several film scripts, Garland stepped behind the camera to direct his first film Ex Machina in 2015. Produced by indie film studio A24 on a modest budget of $15 million, the film made double that in box office returns and continued Garland’s trend of becoming even more popular upon home video release.

The film stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac, and tells the story of a robotics designer who asks a specialist to administer a series of tests to determine whether a robot he created possesses artificial intelligence.

Ex Machina earned Garland his first and only Oscar nomination to date for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). The film was also nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and took home the Oscar in that category.

Garland’s second film as director delved deeper into science fiction, this time based on an idea not his own, adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s “weird fiction” novel Annihilation. The 2018 film starred Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Oscar Isaac.

Made on a $40 million budget, the film barely recouped that in cinemas internationally, but got a boost when purchased by Netflix for exclusive streaming in the US. Its themes of alien invasion through environmental takeover confused some, but the film found its audience inhardcore sci-fi fans who enjoyed the vision of its director.

Television show creator

Garland upped the ante with his next project, Devs, which still stands as one of the most ambitious of his career. Released in 2020, every episode of the original series was written and directed by Garland for FX on Hulu.

Devs, starring Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno and Alison Pill, is about a computer engineer investigating the disappearance of her boyfriend who worked for a mysterious tech company. The show is Garland’s most developed sci-fi work to date, with eight episodes to flesh out an intricate and layered story.

It was well received by critics and fans of Garland and was also nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie.

Disappointment and rejuvenation

Garland’s third film was to become his most divisive work yet. Titled Men, the film was released in 2022 and starred Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear. The film tells the story of a woman who travels to the countryside to deal with the loss of a loved one, only to be met with mind-bending scenarios and horrors. Garland’s work as director was praised for its imaginative scare techniques, but his script did not garner much applause.

For a time, it seemed like the response to Men could cripple Garland’s chances of directing another film. Luckily for his fans, A24 were not about to give up on their darling. Despite the critical and commercial failure of his last film, Garland received the biggest budget and backing of his career for his fourth film project as director.

Civil War stars Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Nick Offerman and Cailee Spaeny. The film was released on Imax screens in the US on Friday and is set to come to UAE cinemas next Thursday.

Focusing on a pertinent issue, Civil War imagines an America even more divided and splintered, and the reasons behind these divisions. Some reviews of the film think it is not realistic enough to be a commentary on society, while others praised its clear satire.

While it may be called Civil War, the name is a bit misleading. The film is more about the journalistic endeavour of remaining neutral in times of political hardship. Being released on Imax, typically reserved for blockbusters, shows that A24 are not ready to give up on Garland, instead pushing him even further. Though it remains to be seen if he will have equally as big a canvas on his next outing.

Updated: April 18, 2024, 3:04 AM