Alex Garland knows what you know. He’s seen Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. He reads Wired and The New York Times. He’s clocked in hours on Xbox and Playstation. He’s dabbled on Facebook and Twitter and other forms of social media.
So when he needs to manipulate the audience, the way he does in the shivery sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, he can play you with the same skill and ease a 17-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto or Halo.
“That’s one of the great things about sci-fi: As a storyteller, I can nudge you toward certain things and hide others, because we have the same points of reference,” Garland, 46, says via telephone from New York. “From my perspective, that’s a free gift. I can show you the scars on a character’s back without acknowledging them, and I know you will remember them. Toying with the traditional beats of sci-fi is incredibly useful. And I really like genre, because there’s nothing detached or ironic about it. You don’t have to be embarrassed by big ideas. You can just put them in, knowing there’s a segment of the audience out there that digs them. They want to be provoked.”
Although he first became known as an author when his 1996 novel The Beach became a mammoth bestseller, Garland has since gravitated away from books (he’s only written two others, The Tesseract and Coma, neither of which was well-received) and toward movies. His first screenplay, for Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie hit 28 Days Later, proved he could transplant the same sort of anxiety and dread he generated on the page to the screen. Other scripts followed — Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd — but further success in his film career proved elusive.
“28 Days Later really caught on, but that was 15 years ago,” he says. “Since then, none of the other movies I’ve worked on did well at the box office. The stone-cold reality is that no one went to see them. But somehow, people gave me $15 million to make another film and let me direct it. I felt like I had won the lottery, because in some ways, Ex Machina is a really weird film. There are a lot of scenes of people talking, and then you get like nine minutes of silence, just music and images. When I think about it, the fact we got financed is extraordinary.”
Arriving on a wave of positive festival buzz and reviews, Ex Machina is an unusually small and focused work of science fiction with only three protagonists: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer at a mammoth, Google-like Internet company who wins a contest to spend a week at the remote home of his genius but reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac); and Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan’s latest project, a sentient robot with a mechanical body and a stunningly beautiful face.
Caleb is asked to serve as a willing guinea pig and spend time with Ava to see if he can fall in love with her, even though she is clearly a machine (her see-through torso and limbs reveal innards comprised of wires, pistons and circuit boards). As Nathan watches via security cameras inside his sleek, state-of-the-art mountainside compound, Caleb and Ava get to know each other — separated through a thick wall of shatterproof glass — and form an unusual relationship.
Although the overriding tone of Ex Machina is cool and cerebral (Stanley Kubrick would have loved this movie), a gradual heat starts to develop, turning the film into a bizarre love triangle between a creator, his invention and his test subject.
“ ‘Heat’ is exactly the right word,” Garland says. “Because otherwise the movie would have been very cold. You needed to have sex and heart in it. Everything on the screen was designed to build that kind of aesthetic, and everyone on the set worked toward that goal. For example, the production designer was the one who pointed out that in some respects, this was like a prison-break movie, except that the prisoner — the machine — inhabits a large, open space, and the person interrogating her is inside a small glass box. I never wrote it that way, but it made perfect sense.”
With so few characters onscreen, casting was critical, something that isn’t always true for this type of heady sci-fi.
“Sometimes with this kind of movie, actors don’t need to be good: They just need to be charismatic,” Garland says. “But this film isn’t like that. I needed to have really good, serious actors, or I’d be in trouble very fast. The financiers understood that. I saw Alicia in a Danish film called A Royal Affair in which she was acting opposite Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt, TV’s Hannibal). He’s a very powerful actor, and here’s this girl, maybe 20 or 21, dominating the screen and becoming the focus of the entire movie. She had that thing — Phillip Seymour Hoffman had it too — where you’re aware of how good they are as you’re watching them, but you also get sucked into their performance. It was pretty clear that she would be perfect.”
Garland says the same was true of Gleeson, with whom he had worked on Never Let Me Go and Dredd, and Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year), the former Miami theater actor who is about to blow up worldwide with the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens (“Everyone in the industry knows how good Oscar is. They’ve been talking about him for years. It’s not a secret.”)
There are a lot of subtexts in Ex Machina, including the complex gender politics inherent in the bizarre love triangle that develops between the protagonists. But as the best films of its genre must do, Ex Machina also resonates as a rumination on the potential threats we are bound to face as technology continues to accelerate at an unprecedented speed and our everyday existence becomes more virtual and artificial.
“The movie has a bunch of suspicions, but it’s neither a pro nor anti-A.I. film,” Garland says. “It’s really about us, people, and the ways in which we deceive each other. It’s about this sense that there all these machines — laptops and tablets and cell phones — that we don’t really understand how they work, but they seem to know a hell of a lot about us. They know where we’re going for dinner and who’s in our address book and how much is in our bank account and when we input something into a search window, they predict what they think we are going to type. That should make us uneasy. It’s correct that we feel uneasy.
“I have a real ambivalence about these giant tech companies. On the one hand, they’re amazing. They’re like NASA in the 1960s, except instead of going to the moon, we are exploring artificial intelligence and how to make universal translators and how to get technological benefits to remote parts of Africa. All this stuff is helpful and good and useful and admirable. But at the same time, there’s no real oversight on these companies. They’re not transparent. They’re hidden. That makes me nervous. I don’t care if they’re doing something wrong. That’s irrelevant. When they have this much power, someone needs to be watching them. So somewhere in this movie, I am trying to gently fan the flames of that fear. I wouldn’t call it paranoia, because that’s unreasonable. This is a very reasonable fear. There is no privacy anymore. Just forget it. That land grab is gone. It doesn’t exist. And that should be scary.”