Alex Garland's Ex Machina is a man-vs-machine tale that sides with the machines

In his directorial debut, Alex Garland has crafted a sci-fi drama that is powered by human emotion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 2015, 1:18pm


Three characters trapped in a house debating human consciousness may not sound like the most exciting backbone for a movie. Yet in Ex Machina, the directing debut for writer Alex Garland, that dry-sounding concept becomes the basis for a sci-fi thriller of sleek, gleaming surfaces and impressive intellectual depth, somehow managing to feel modern, futuristic and classical all at once.

"The challenge is … how do you make a movie which is basically a film of ideas?" Garland says. "And then making those ideas accessible and dramatically interesting and trying to understand them."

The film begins with young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an internal company contest for a private visit with reclusive tech industrialist Nathan (Oscar Isaac) - think Mark Zuckerberg plus Steve Jobs plus Howard Hughes - on his remote nature preserve estate. There, Caleb discovers that Nathan has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), a lifelike and beautiful robot with an artificial intelligence strengthened with data from the company's online search engines.

Just because something is science fiction doesn’t make it just spaceships. In my head, they tell you more about people than they do about machines

What begins as Caleb administering a series of tests designed to determine whether Ava has gained sentient self-awareness becomes a twisting game of wills and wits as the three characters battle for dominance and survival.

"One of the big things for me to figure out for my character was what's he doing on purpose, what's he accidentally doing, what's he in control of, what is he not in control of and then feeling all that," Isaac says. "We'd talk about the script as a whole and look at it from every angle to make sure it sticks together."

Garland adds: "There's a lot of misdirection in the film."

The London-born Garland, 45, has had an intriguing path to his first directing credit. After his debut novel, the backpacking adventure The Beach, was adapted into a movie, he reinvigorated the zombie story with his first screenplay, 28 Days Later. Alongside two more novels, he followed this up with scripts to the space drama Sunshine and adaptations of the novel Never Let Me Go and comic Dredd. Taken together, it's a consistently inventive body of work, full of big ideas and a complicated view of technology's interface with society.

For all its hi-tech filigree, there is something elemental in Ex Machina, a grounding in the basic forces of desire and power alongside headier ideas of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The film's serious ideas are put in relief by its escalating tension, and Garland was also aware of baiting the trap in how the gender dynamics between Caleb, Ava and Nathan would all play out.

"If you look at issues of strong AI that is self-aware, you are talking about consciousness," he says. "And when you're talking about consciousness, you are talking about lies, jealousy, attraction, sexuality."

As far as Gleeson is concerned, great science fiction is also great human drama. "They're not separate in my mind. Just because something is science fiction doesn't make it just spaceships. In my head, they tell you more about people than they do about machines."

When the film made its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Texas last month, senior programmer Jarod Neece declared: "This might be one of the best films we've ever played [here]."

The film was shot in just six weeks on a budget of less than US$15 million, with a healthy ratio of that going towards the visual effects needed to create Ava. Four weeks were spent at Britain's Pinewood Studios, the production leaving just ahead of the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which Isaac and Gleeson will also appear. The organic modernism and untouched nature of Nathan's estate were captured at a boutique hotel and private residence in Norway.

Garland, serious but friendly, is quick to highlight the collaborative nature of filmmaking with a team that included cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Mark Day, production designer Mark Digby, costumes by Sammy Sheldon Differ, and visual effects by Andrew Whitehurst.

It also features music by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow. (A startling, robust dance number occurs to Oliver Cheatham's 1983 R&B chestnut Get Down Saturday Night.)

Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander will each be seen in numerous other films this year.

On making the transition to directing with his original script for Ex Machina - "I love this question," Garland dryly says before it's even fully asked - the director provides a brief disclaimer to something he has now been asked about many times. "The question presupposes a bunch of stuff that I just don't agree with," he says with quiet determination.

"What it presupposes is stuff about the primacy of the director and the deification of the director and the importance of the director, and I just don't see films in that way. I see it as collaboration between a bunch of people.

"And I've worked on films before this one, and this is another one, and it was a continuum. It's not this big epiphany thing.

"I'm not saying auteurs don't exist, but I'm not an auteur. I'm not interested in being one; I'm interested in working with a group of people. So this was just another film," Garland says.

Andrew MacDonald, producer on Ex Machina alongside DNA Films partner Allon Reich, acknowledges that Garland's feelings are uniquely his own. "In certain instances, he stood there and grimaced as other directors have taken more credit. He's counter-reacting to that," MacDonald says.

"He doesn't want to take that credit, but 'a film by' is justified … because he wrote it and directed it and created it all. But at the same time, it's true that it's collaboration. Even Stanley Kubrick had help."

Taken together, what Garland has put on screen as writer and now director creates a startling view of humanity and the ramifications of a tech-inflected culture. Although he doesn't shy away from the "dystopian" label - "That describes what it is" - he also doesn't see his body of work as some bleak end-times revelation or futurist prophecy. "It's where I feel we're at more than where we're heading," Garland says.

"Actually, for me, it's an uplifting film, Ex Machina, for what it's worth. I'm on the side of the machines. I like the machines. I have problems with humans. Humans are doing some really bad stuff.

"I think it's actually reasonable to say that a sentient machine might be more reasonable than us about some things. I don't find that scary," he says.

Los Angeles Times