Interview: Alex Garland of “Ex Machina”

Posted on May 1, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Copyright A24 2015
Copyright A24 2015

Alex Garland is the screenwriter of thought-provoking sci-fi films like “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go.”  He wrote and for the first time directed “Ex Machina,” a fascinating story about Caleb, a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson), invited to the remote home of Nathan, a reclusive genius (Oscar Isaac), to evaluate a new artificial intelligence persona in the body of a lovely female robot called Ava, with the exquisite face and voice of actress Alicia Vikander.  Nathan tells Caleb to perform a “Turing test” but as he and we learn, he is really the one being tested.  There’s a reason the Turing test is blind.  Ava’s programming and appearance are designed to play into Caleb’s susceptibilities.

I loved talking to Garland about the film.

You must know Domhnall Gleeson pretty well by now. But this was your first time working with Oscar Isaac, right?

It is the third movie we have worked on together. So we’ve known each other backwards.  Not only that, the first movie he ever worked on, “28 Days Later,” was with his dad. So out of five movies four of them have been with Gleeson so I know that clan and I know Domhnall really very well. We’re friends. So casting him is different. I just call him up and say, “Look man, there is this thing, I really think it would be good, would you take a look?” The thing about Oscar was I have seen him in stuff like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies,” set in the Middle East, and he is acting opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, which can freak people out, and I was thinking, “He is just owning every scene, and what is he doing? How is he owning it?” I can’t see what he’s doing, he is relaxed and he is so natural, an incredibly naturalistic performance but also very magnetic, a sort of gravity suck performance that just pulls you towards it. And so there’s something fascinating about him. Every time I saw him it might be in a bad movie but he’d good.

Copyright 2015 A24
Copyright 2015 A24

When you hire an actor it’s like a three years lag in a funny way. Everybody starts talking about these guys before they really hit and everybody knew Oscar was good. That was the word going around, this guy was really good. I knew he was good and then I met him and he was really smart. Again not all good actors are smart.  They can project smart, they can act smart but they may not actually be smart. He is really smart and by the end of that meeting I knew he was right for Nathan. And so I got this growing sense of anxiety through the meeting.  You start to think, “What if I don’t get him?”  I know that there are three other movies trying to get him.

And then you get this crazy thing where you get to know this young man, he’s intelligent, he’s quite slim and he is articulate, he’s quite delicate, he is a guitar player and he says, “I’ll be there in 21/2 months.” and you think, “Yeah, we’ve got this slim young guy,” and he turns up, he’s like a bull, and I don’t know how he did it. And then you get used to this other person because Oscar, the guy you knew, vanished. You can’t find him anymore, he is gone. And instead, there is this powerful muscular, testosterone-driven alpha male and he dominates everything.  Often working with him on set was like being in theater where you are watching a performance and I would lose track of all the things I should be watching because I’m completely locked into his performance. Just exactly like being at the theatre with terrific actor on stage.  It is incredibly seductive and so you totally forget to say, “Cut.” And I really mean that, it’s not just a set of words that people say. But eventually you get used to it, then the film ends. And you meet Oscar three months later. He was over actually for the premiere of “Inside Llewyn Davis” where he was a completely different person and the bull is gone and the slender young guitar player guy is back again. Everything I just said vanishes. He vanishes part by part.

I didn’t recognize him at first in the trailer, with the shaved head and beard and the thick, muscular body.

It was a result of collaboration and conversation. I liked the idea that Nathan had a beard for various reasons partly because I’ve always being told in previous films when I would write a character with a beard that the studios hate beards, they used to hate beards because it kills international sales or some stupid reason like that. So I knew he had a beard and I knew that I wanted him to be physically powerful because he is a bully on an intellectual level and the implicit violence in him.  Oscar arrived with a whole bunch of other things.  One thing that Oscar felt that he needed was glasses.  It was quite interesting, when he didn’t have classes he looked like a thug but when he wore glasses he was at least an intelligent thug.  Somehow we’re taught that glasses make you look smart and it does kind of work. And eventually we settled on the shaved head and beard and he had the muscle mass and the glasses. And then the final thing he did which was really lovely and strange was his Bronx accent which he got from Kubrick because he loved the juxtaposition.  Kubrick was is obviously an intelligent man who has this owlish look which Oscar often does if you watch his performance. He has this sort of owlish raised eyebrow look but this Bronx accent that is slightly incongruous.

Tell me about your location — that spectacular Juvet Hotel in Norway.

There’s something that is slightly kind of obscene in a way about this because to say it’s a low-budget film when it’s $15 million, which is obviously a massive amount of money, but in the world of film-making it’s turns out to be a small amount of money. So then what do you got, you’re telling a story about a guy owns the biggest tech company in the world, as rich as anything you can imagine with a property which needs to reflect his level of wealth.  How does a low budget film create endless wealth?  It is a sort of paradox.  We found this beautiful spot in Norway. It wasn’t the just the architecture; it was also the landscape. Some of the mountain landscape was sort of chocolate boxy, a bit like Ansel Adams, too beautiful, too perfect.  Norway had a kind of brutal bleak sort of aspect and  these big powerful skies and these mountains that could kill you really and not care, with powerful sort of glaciers and rivers and stuff like that.

What do you see as the significance of the Turing test?

The Turing test is perceived as test of sentience but it is not, it is a language test. It’s a test to see if you can pass the Turing test.

Nathan does not abide by Asimov’s rules preventing robots from hurting a human.  

He is doing a self-destructive thing.  He’s working on successive machines each more successful and capable than the next.  He knows that the intention is at some point one of these machines will outsmart him and when that happens it won’t be good for him. He knows that. He knows it won’t be good for him and he knows it probably won’t be good for us.

He’s very Darwinian about it.

He is very Darwinian and actually that was a very important aspect of this, that they are actually part of us, a continuation of us. We tend to see them as parallel.  Either they get presented as a rival species or as a creation is like Frankenstein, semi-religious, where it is not your place to mess with God’s work. I was just trying to present it as a parental thing, the creation of a new consciousness, which is what parents do. And also those consciousnesses do rebel from us and do move on and actually what we ask of them is that they live longer than we do and have better lives.  Always for me when she turns around and says to Nathan, “What is it like to have made something that hates you?” — it’s an adolescence.

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Ex Machina

Posted on April 16, 2015 at 5:18 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use, intoxication
Violence/ Scariness: Violence and peril, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2015
Date Released to DVD: July 14, 2015 ASIN: B00XI057M0
Copyright A24 2015
Copyright A24 2015

Movies about artificial intelligence or computers achieving consciousness are, of course, really about what it means to be human.

When software and hardware combine to mimic or exceed human qualities in “Her,” “Chappie,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Terminator,” or the upcoming Avengers sequel, even “Planet of the Apes,” it is a way to think about what it is that defines us. Alan Turing of “The Imitation Game” used our ability as humans to recognize each other as the famous Turing test to determine whether artificial intelligence has been created. The test is passed when a person cannot tell whether the entity on the other side of a conversation is human. If we cannot tell the difference, then we have to rethink our exceptionalist notions of human supremacy.  We accept, sometimes reluctantly, the notion that computers are vastly superior in computation and memory, that they can whomp us in chess or on Jeopardy.  But can a machine achieve what we think of as consciousness?  Or conscience?

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a computer programmer who gets the equivalent of Charlie Bucket’s golden ticket.  He wins a chance to spend a week at the home of the brilliant founder of his company (think Steve Jobs), a man who at age 13 invented the most powerful search engine and now lives in a home so remote that a helicopter flies over the thickly wooded property for two hours before they reach the residence.  They are in the middle of nowhere.  (The film was made at the stunning Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway.)

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, all brutish charm, feral, and entitled, with shaved head and beard), welcomes him with a rough candor, explaining that he is hung over, and giving Caleb a keycard, so that he will have access to those parts of the home where he is welcome and be kept out of those where he is not.  It turns out he has been brought there for a purpose.  Nathan has been working on what he describes as the greatest scientific advance of all time.  He is not creating a robot.  He is trying to create life.  He wants Caleb to perform the Turing test on his latest creation, named Ava (Alicia Vikander of “Anna Karenina”).  

But it turns out that it may not be Ava who is being tested.

Ava is gorgeously designed.  Nathan admits that he created her to be intensely appealing and she is, both her humanoid face and her transparent neck and midriff that allow us to glimpse her mechanics.  Vikander gives her a tentativeness and innocence, with a sweet seriousness and (at least at first) an endearing wish to please.  She tells Caleb to wait while she gets a surprise and it turns out to be clothes that cover up the machinery so well that it is not just the human part of Caleb that recognizes her as a part of the same species; it is the depths of the lizard brain instinct.  We may have wondered why Nathan’s test was conducted in a glass box that separates Ava and Caleb.  Perhaps it was to prevent him from abandoning the Turing test for a more animalistic evaluation based on smell and touch.

There is that always-compelling hubris/Frankenstein/Jurassic Park/sorcerer’s apprentice element of foolish, narcissistic grandiosity in creating something out of a grant vision without appreciating how dangerous it will be.  Something always goes wrong.  And anyone who does not realize that does not really understand that part of the essence of humanity, for better and worse, is the chasm between our ability to dream and our ability to execute.

First lesson: Isaac Asimov was right.  Second lesson: the qualities of human-hood go beyond syntactical complexity and conversational non-linearity.  To be human means independence of thought and action, and the pesky thing about independence is that it overlaps with rebellion.  We know computers can outsmart us.  Can they out-human us, too?  Is it any wonder that Caleb flays his own arm just to check that what is inside is not made of gears and chips?

Screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go”), directing for the first time, has an eye for gorgeous visuals and a superb sense of balancing the future-wow with the ordinary to make his sci-fi-style extrapolations amplify and illuminate who we are.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, substance abuse, explicit nudity and sexual situations, and violence.

Family discussion: What is Ava’s most human quality?  What is Nathan’s least human quality?

If you like this, try: Read up on the Turing test and watch movies like “A.I.” and “Her”


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Trailer: Ex Machina

Posted on January 18, 2015 at 8:00 am

Imagine they were beta-testing Samantha in “Her,” or one of the replicants in “Blade Runner” and you were brought in to try out the latest model. That’s the idea behind “Ex Machina,” with two of today’s most fascinating actors, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Opening in April 2015.

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