The Soundscapes of Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ and ‘Ex Machina’


Collaborating with composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, director and writer Alex Garland uses both score and pre-recorded soundtrack music to articulate his main character’s motivations and desires. During one of the first scenes of Annihilation, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” plays diegetically (from a source within the film’s story). Its plain, pastoral tenor ruptures the film’s extraterrestrial aesthetic. The trio’s pleasant, soothing vocals and the gentle guitar melody overlays a pan across photographs of Lena’s missing husband Kane during his military service. Garland then cuts to Lena sitting on the couch sobbing and clutching her locket that holds another photo of him inside. To distract herself from the pain, she repaints their bedroom as “Helplessly Hoping” continues, revealing its poignant parallels to the narrative. Lena is helplessly hoping for her husband’s homecoming: others beg her to give up because it has been an entire year since his disappearance, but she holds onto the hope against hope that he will return.

“He runs, wishing he could fly, only to trip at the sound of goodbye” brings to mind Lena’s memory of Kane’s uncomfortable farewell. Kane accepts a treacherous mission in order to quickly flee their strained domestic life. He sits on the edge of the bed and looks into his wife’s eyes with a steely glare before mustering, “I do love you.” In other words, he loves her despite her infidelities, and he tries to convince himself that this is true. It is a difficult, uneasy goodbye. The lines in the second verse, “Did he hear a goodbye? Or even hello?” articulates the couple’s self-doubt. With the knowledge of Lena’s affair dangling between them, how can they properly communicate or be sure of each other’s genuine emotions? Now that Kane is gone, Lena is left “wordlessly watching” by her window for him to come home, beleaguered by his physical and emotional absence and wistfully recalling their better memories.

Lena embodies the harlequin denoted in the song’s opening lines: she is a performer in their marriage, a deceiver who sleeps with a colleague while Kane is away. The reason she embarks on the self-destructive odyssey into The Shimmer is not because she loves Kane, but because she owes him for her transgressions. The second appearance of “Helplessly Hoping” draws out the tensions between the couple; it plays softly in the background while they read on the couch and share an edgy exchange. Lena likely listens to “Helplessly Hoping” during her husband’s absence because it reminds her of him, and it may have been one of his favorite songs. The song’s tranquillity lends an eeriness to Kane’s sudden reappearance—or more appropriately, his manifestation. With his back to the camera, Kane slowly ascends the stairs as the lyrics “Stand on the stairway, you’ll see something certain to tell to you confusion has its cost” faintly emits from the upstairs bedroom. He embodies the stupefying confusion of The Shimmer and the cost it has on one’s identity and self-hood.

The chorus of the song mirrors Lena’s opening monologue on cell division: “One became two. Two became four. Then eight. Sixteen. Thirty-two.” Existential contemplation of humanity and nature’s duality—its beauty and its horror—defines Annihilation. But more simply, Kane and Lena are “one person” united by marriage, but “two alone,” seperated because of her infidelity and their lack of interpersonal connection. Only with the element of love can they be “three together,” and as the ending indicates, “they are for each other” no matter what form their selves take.

Part of the incredible score includes an acoustic country-tinged guitar riff that evokes the Crosby, Stills & Nash ballad and embodies Kane’s pastorality—his southern brand of Christianity. In a flashback, he believes that God is perfect and his creation of aging is not, as Lena believes, a fundamental flaw in our genetic makeup. This science versus religion debate also indicates the couple’s mismatch. The repetition of the acoustic theme throughout the film connects to Lena’s longing for her husband and their suburban life during her pilgrimage through the mystifying, psychedelic world of The Shimmer, as it often plays during her memories of Kane before his deployment. Its first appearance occurs when the meteor crashes into the lighthouse, foreshadowing Kane’s devastating relationship to the locale. One of the most prominent moments Kane’s guitar appears is when Lena examines her blood through a microscope. Garland graphic matches Kane and Lena doubling over in pain, then interrupts with a flashback image of her rolling back as she has sex with another man. This sequence points towards the corporeal duality of pleasure and pain, but primarily elucidates the profound bond Kane and Lena share despite her adultery.

One of the most notorious scenes in Ex Machina is when multibillionaire supergenius Nathan and his servant Kyoko tear up the dance floor with a synchronized and impeccably fluid disco routine set to Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night,” complete with funkadelic nightclub lighting. It’s a jarring and off-kilter moment that both rattles and delights the audience, and seems to come out of nowhere. But the preceding moments are just as strange and unnerving: Caleb finds Kyoko staring at Nathan’s Jackson Pollock drip painting—a symbol of the liminal space between humanity and machine, and Nathan’s hope that his creations will react, behave, and truly feel without thinking—the true indication that they have developed a human-like consciousness. Caleb asks Kyoko if she knows where Nathan is, and her programmed response is to take her shirt off—one she learned from Nathan, her sadistic master/creator. Beforehand, Caleb witnessed Nathan rip up Ava’s beloved drawing, and the more his infatuation for her grows the more he begins to see Nathan as the monomaniacal, bellicose egoist that he is.

At this point, Nathan spookily appears in the background and tells Caleb that he’s wasting his time talking to Kyoko because she does not understand English—despite several hints by Garland that she does. “You would not be wasting your time if you were dancing with her,” he says before launching into the performance. The carefree lyrics about the sweet release of Saturday night after you’ve worked “your fingers to the bone” supports Nathan’s drunken proposal to Caleb that he unwind after a long day of Turing Tests. The dance is just one of the many unsettling ways Kyoko is forced into servitude and submits to Nathan’s corybantic whims. Most of all, it encapsulates the essential duality of Nathan: his menace and charisma, his discipline and recklessness. Nathan uses the dance to assert his dominance over Caleb, to let him know that he is the Promethean god and in control of him, Kyoko, and everyone in his orbit. The disco routine is as calculated and exact as the construction of his robotic creations, but as wild as his bacchanalian lifestyle.

One of the compositional themes that stands out the most in Ex Machina is Ava’s, made of soft, gentle chimes reminiscent of a nursery lullaby. Its placidity keeps the audience from realizing her true manipulative nature and gives the impression that she is as innocent as a child. Yet the musical theme is just as much Caleb’s, as it expresses his idolatrous objectification of her. It appears when he sees her for the first time, standing before a glass wall filled with foliage and bright white lights, shrouded in shadow except for the mechanical embers of her see-through torso. The fairytale-esque bells convey Caleb’s view of her as a magical, pure, enigma—a robot princess waiting to be rescued. Ava’s theme reappears when she listens to Caleb’s confession about his childhood car crash; seemingly moved to tears, the sonic cues trick the audience into believing she is genuinely empathetic—but it is just another tactic to get closer to Caleb so that he can help her escape. When Ava does break out of Nathan’s secluded mountainous lair, the theme becomes ethereal and triumphant: her dream has come true. It accompanies Ava rapt in childlike wonder as dresses herself in the skin and clothes of a human, her rebirth from an imprisoned A.I. to an autonomous, liberated human. Within Ex Machina and Annhilation, Alex Garland constructs an incredible sonic landscape that reveals so much about his fascinating characters.  

by Caroline Madden

Caroline  hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and loves writing about women in film, soundtracks, and 1960s/1980s culture. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins


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