Alex Garland is no stranger to sci-fi and has written a plethora of great films, which include 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Sunshine. He makes his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a highly thought-provoking film about artificial intelligence. I sat down with Garland to talk about the film, the sci-fi genre, AI and humanity. You can read the full interview below. And do check out the film, as it is one of my favorites of the year so far. You can read my full review here.
Synopsis: Caleb, a 26 year old coder at the world’s largest internet company, wins a competition to spend a week at a private mountain retreat belonging to Nathan, the reclusive CEO of the company. But when Caleb arrives at the remote location he finds that he will have to participate in a strange and fascinating experiment in which he must interact with the world’s first true artificial intelligence, housed in the body of a beautiful robot girl.
The film stars Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander and is out in theaters now.
What do you enjoy the most about the sci-fi genre, and what brought you into writing it?
Let’s see. Well, that’s quite easy, for me it’s that science fiction gives you a lot of permissions. You don’t have to smuggle ideas in. I’ve often felt that if you’re writing a story, you have an agenda. And I’ve always had some kind of agenda whenever I was writing. You have to excuse it, sneak it in and make everything work in a kind of covert way. And in sci-fi you can stick it in there and put it front and center and not feel awkward about it. There’s an embarrassment about big ideas. That people feel they’re sophomoric in other genres, but in sci-fi they kind of embrace it and that’s great.
And this is your directorial debut. What was different for you in writing a screenplay and now with taking on both writing and directing?
I’ve always been quite involved in the film production of the films I’ve written. I’ve never written a script and just handed it over. I’ve stayed involved. On this film, I was working with a large group of people, as it happens for every film, and a lot of the people on this film, I’ve worked with many times before. We’ve sat on sound stages in different parts of the world talking to each other. Same guys, same “how should we fix this problem?” and “what should we do now?” “Would it be cool if we did this and would it be cool if we did that?” Those conversations are the same ones and with many of the same people.
This movie was a breath of fresh air after many months of mediocrity. It’s very thought-provoking and mind blowing in its own way.
Well that’s cool because that was the plan. The plan was that it was an ideas movie and that it would give people something to talk about and something to argue about. Some people might take one position and some might take another, but there’d be something reasonable at the heart of it to engage with. I can really love movies where I’m just there to have a visceral experience or really enjoy them, but this one [Ex Machina] was quieter, more reflective. The hope was that there’d be enough people that would dig it and that would justify its existence. So if you responded in that way, that was the plan and the hope.
With artificial intelligence, a lot of people tend to be scared of it. Tend to be scared of robotics, of the concepts of AI and all that it encompasses. So it’s interesting that the complexity of this film follows AI and reflects human beings. Our limitations and our evolution as people, but also what we strive for.
Yeah. I mean at the core of what it was meant to say that we value in each other is our minds, our sentient. And if this machine has that, then you have to value it equally. And I think the mistake that happens is that the humans in the film don’t really value it in the right way. There are other arguments as to why they didn’t value it in the right way and what lies behind that. But basically, I just wanted to make a movie which was sympathetic on the side of the machine. That’s the way I felt. And not everybody takes it that way and some people feel like it means the machine is evil. That wasn’t my take [laughs].
In a sense, Ava [Alicia Vikander], and all the other characters have a manipulation game going on. They all have their own end game essentially.
Yeah. They do. But there’s one key difference, which is that Ava is a prisoner and the other ones are not. Ava is in a glass box and she can’t get out and there’s a jailer. And the guy who’s the jailer is a pretty malevolent man. And she has reasons to believe that there have been other things in this glass box before her. There’s a crack on the glass that she didn’t make. There’s a sense that she has that things may not end well for her. And she’s being tested and what happens when she fails the test? What’s the implication? So she needs to get out. The other people who are manipulating each other are doing it from a position of freedom and she’s not in that position.
And that’s pretty powerful. Also, the perspective that she’s an AI, but is ultimately a female made from the male perspective is also very interesting and adds to the layers of complexity.
Yeah. And that’s if you choose to call her female. I mean, you could argue against that because she’s a machine. In a sense, she doesn’t have any gender. She looks like a female, but does that mean she is one. Who knows? It’s one of the things that are there to be discussed.
I loved the scene where Domhnall Gleeson is looking at himself in the mirror and begins cutting himself to see if, in fact, is also AI. It was very powerful with all the things happening around him. And the atmosphere is very claustrophobic for him, so he’s also trapped in a way. And just to make sure he’s not a machine and wasn’t something Nathan [Oscar Isaac] made really stood out.
I wanted people to question whether he was AI, yeah. There were some things that slightly nudged people towards that possible conclusion. Like he has these strange symmetrical scars on his back. And there’s a back story where he was in a car crash. Does a car accident give you those scars? It’s a question. So I knew people would go down that road. I should have thought they’d go down that road anyway even without putting in any scars. It’s a question people pose in this kind of narrative and try to figure that out. To me, that was useful because what it did was that it took the attention away from Ava, which protected what she was planning, what her agenda is. And so there’s a switch that happens at a certain point. It may be that people are taken by surprise, where they thought they were with this guy and they’re actually with this machine. And they feel close to this machine.
It was hard. For example, I was on Ava’s side, but I also felt bad for Caleb [Gleeson] in the end also. But from her perspective, she didn’t see it that way.
And there’s a moment in the film where she does a reverse test on him. She asks him about his favorite color and stuff, and she says “what’s going to happen to me if I fail your test?” And he hedges his bets. He’s not really honest with her. And in that moment maybe she thinks that she can’t completely trust him. And in order to get out of here she needs people she can completely trust. So she had to rely on herself. So it’s tough for him.
What would ultimately bring a character like Nathan to where he was then at that point in the film?
I think that’s the kind of question that if people were interested, I’d leave it to them to decide. But there are parallels drawn between Nathan and this guy Oppenheimer, who was one of the people who developed the atomic bomb. A scientific goal can lead you towards it, even when you know it carries huge danger. The goal is sufficiently attractive. You don’t ignore the danger and you decide to live with the ethical implications. Something like that. And Nathan was very self-aware about it. When Oscar Isaac and I used to talk about it, we used to say he [Nathan] is kind of committing suicide in some respects. He’s going to keep creating these machines and they’re going to get better and better. And at some point they’re going to outsmart him. When he gets outsmarted, he knows it’s not going to end up well for him. It’s going to be bad. He knew it was coming, but he didn’t know it was going to be Ava. He thought it would be the one after or the one after that.
What Nathan doesn’t do is put Caleb into the equation. He didn’t believe he’d be able to pull anything like that off.
Right. No, he didn’t. Nathan has that thing that lots of smart people do. Which is, they’re used to being the smartest people in the room and they get used to that and think they’re always the smartest person. And at some point they’re not.
What was your favorite aspect of this film? Was it the plot? The implication of what you were bringing to the audience?
My favorite part was the process. I’ve been working in film for 15 years and I’ve worked on some productions that were unpleasant for one reason or another. And whatever it is you’re working on, it’s going to take 2-3 years to do it and if you’re working on an unpleasant production, that’s 2-3 miserable years and that’s your life at that moment. On this film, it was a really great group of people. There were some brilliant people in the crew, the cast was fantastic, and it was a great atmosphere. In the end, the most important thing is spending 2-3 years making something which is a pleasure as opposed to falling down a mountainside [laughs].
You isolated these characters in order to explore different things: their humanity, manipulation, love, ethics, etc. And you forced us to look at them without any distractions from the outside.
Yeah. They’re kind of under a microscope. It’s like a pressure-cooker environment. And this film’s done ok. The basic rule of filmmaking is you kind of need your movies to do ok in order to get the chance to make another one. Because they’re so expensive. This is a low-budget movie and it was $15 million. Still, it’s a huge amount of money. Someone has to give you that amount of money. So the fact that this one has done ok, it gives me a shot at doing it again, which is really all I want.
What are any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
I’m trying to get a movie off the ground. I’ve written a film which is based on a novel by Jeff Vandermeer, called Annihilation. I’m working with the producers of Ex Machina to try and get it financed. So I’m hoping that will work out. And if it does, we’ll probably get to shoot that sometime early next year. I just enjoy working. And if it’s a cool story with a cool group of people, then I don’t set myself any parameters.