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From ‘Men’ to ‘Ex Machina’: How Alex Garland Uses Isolation to Force Self-Actualization

Isolation is a tool used in many films across genres to invoke fear and paranoia in both the characters and the audience. It’s especially effective in thriller and horror content where fear and paranoia are paramount. Acclaimed director Alex Garland has made masterful use of isolation in his films from his debut with Ex Machina to his adaptation of Annihilation in 2018 to his most recent release, Men. Though the stories and styles of each film can vary wildly, each sees their protagonists traveling to remote locales only to be faced with a growing sense of isolation and unease. The characters’ physical isolation only serves to magnify any pre-existing issues causing them to doubt themselves and the world around them. We see this used to different effects in each of the films, but ultimately Garland utilizes isolation in order to amplify his character’s mental distress and compound on it through the panic and paranoia that ensue, forcing characters to an emotional breaking point that will resolve both the internal and external conflict.

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In Ex Machina, programmer Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) travels to the remote home of tech CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) to help him complete a Turing test on an artificial intelligence he’s created. The AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), proves to be far more intelligent than either man had originally thought. Having lived her entire life as a lab rat, her isolation and the nature of her existence have created a sense of isolation and distrust for her. Ava seeks to break free of the isolation inflicted upon her and escape to the real world by whatever means necessary. Her isolation is imposed on many fronts from her containment, to her design, to the distinction Caleb draws between what he considers human and not. The isolation works twofold on both Caleb and Ava with Caleb growing more paranoid as he becomes aware Ava is not under control. Ultimately, isolation can only be broken here by brute force with Ava prying the bars off her own cage, killing her masters, and escaping into the real world to unknown ends. The isolation of the characters drives them to extremes where they must choose themselves over others and come to grips with what they truly believe.


As all of these films do, Annihilation first takes Lena (Natalie Portman) and her team to remote swampland to research an anomaly, but this physical isolation serves to compound on the protagonist’s mental sense of isolation. She’s unable to come to grips with the husband who has finally returned to her only in a deeply altered state. She sets off to hopefully resolve how and why this has happened to him. But as the physical isolation forces Lena to come to grips with more and more things about herself, her mental isolation only increases. The extraordinary plants and animals of Area X test the limits of her and her companions’ sanity leaving them feeling as if they can only trust themselves (and sometimes even doubting that). Lena feels disconnected from reality both physically and mentally. It’s only after she’s left completely alone and comes face to face with the alien in the lighthouse that she can reach a sense of equilibrium. The isolation, fear, and paranoia compound manifesting in the alien coming to mirror Lena entirely, a reflection of the self she’s been grappling with throughout the film. It’s only after this confrontation with the self that a version of Lena can return to the outside world, escaping isolation through metamorphosis.


Isolation is not just physical, it can also be social. And sometimes that social isolation can be even more harmful. Men follows Harper (Jessie Buckley) to a remote village as she strives to come to grips with her husband’s death. At first the isolation within nature is a comfort, a place for her to be free from the heartache and hurt that’s been holding her down but that peace is repeatedly intruded upon by men. Her isolation is constructed by her husband who made her feel trapped and alone in her marriage. When she asked for a separation he refused and when she persisted he hit her. Now dealing with the aftermath of his death, that isolation, the insistence from others and society that she is wrong and alone in her feelings, is compounded upon by the men she meets. They deny her, mock her, stalk her, doubt her, blame her for her husband’s death, and repeatedly ignore whatever boundaries she tries to set. Harper is surrounded by people but she is alone. Their refusal to see her, respect her, and to listen to her leaves her feeling helpless, paranoid, and afraid. Garland uses isolation in this film to inflame Harper’s internal torment, forcing her to a breaking point where she must either accept her isolation or give in.


From the beginning, Garland has been using physically remote locations to force his characters into a state of external isolation in order to draw out their issues. Nature itself, in all these films, has not itself an enemy. Instead, the threat is manmade. It’s the tunnel interrupting Harper’s nature walk, it’s the distrust among Lena’s team, it’s Nathan creating life and keeping it trapped in a glorified sex dungeon. The location is the kindling, but the spark is the psyche. For that isolation to be overcome physically it must first be overcome emotionally. It’s a hero’s journey that takes the character’s out into the unknown world, an isolated locale that feels not of this world, challenges them in unique and terrifying ways that they must then overcome in order to return to the known world. They return from isolation only when they’ve reached a state of self-understanding and self-acceptance that will allow them to move forward.


Isolation comes in many forms, but Garland uses all of them to force characters to harden themselves. To become self-actualized or perish, these are your choices. In isolation one must either accept their true self or let the doubt and fear consume them. Garland parallels physical isolation with a cognitive counterpart, a sense of separation from oneself or from others that creates unease. Through their otherworldly circumstances the characters of Garland’s films are forced to overcome their sense of isolation, to defy the fear and paranoia, in order to move forward. This doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a better person, simply a more self-actualized one. Ava, Lena, and Harper all conclude their respective films in a state of relative contentedness, having accepted themselves and stepped forward. Isolation is a trial by fire and only characters who’ve come to grips with themselves can return with the elixir.


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