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Spirits in the Material World 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

The hit screenwriter Alex Garland’s debut as a director is a sci-fi allegory about robots, set in the near future

Unlike other sci-fi auteurs, Alex Garland really likes robots. His new film, Ex Machina, about the creation of an artificially intelligent machine, doesn’t feature anything quite as malevolent as HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator. Garland, who made his name as a screenwriter — The Beach, 28 Days Later and Dredd are among his credits — doesn’t buy into science fiction’s lasting paranoia about the threat of artificial intelligence (AI).

“I’m not against AIs,”says the London-born 44-year-old. “They’re typically presented as Frankenstein’s monster, getting out of control. But this isn’t Frankenstein’s monster out of control. It’s Frankenstein who’s out of control. There’s nothing wrong with her at all.”

The “her” Garland is referring to is Ava, the robot heroine of his directorial debut (played by the Swedish rising star Alicia Vikander). Ava is the mysterious creation of a reclusive tech billionaire, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). She’s definitely artificial, with latticework skin and a transparent torso revealing gears and hydraulics within. But when an eager young coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins the chance to visit Nathan’s mountain retreat, he finds himself tasked with discovering whether there is life in the machine. As it comes from the writer of The Beach, it’s safe to say that things unravel from there. “It gets more and more trippy,” Garland says, with some understatement.

Ex Machina is a gripping sci-fi three-hander, a rich allegory drawn from thought experiments and philosophies that have fascinated Garland for years. Then again, as delivered by a man weaned on comic books, blockbuster movies and video games, it’s never pretentious or impenetrable. “I don’t want it to feel like a dry playing-out of these thought experiments,” he insists. “It has to have heat and passion.”

I meet Garland on location in Norway. With little more than a week left to shoot, it’s a scramble to get everything done, but he seems relaxed. This is his first directing credit. If it’s not quite Star Wars in terms of scale, it’s no micro-budget indie, either.

Why did it take him so long to direct? Apparently, he was just waiting for a project of the right size. And he’s none too keen on the more authoritarian side of notionally being in charge. “I shrink from the word ‘director’ because I know the implications put on that job title,” he says. “I know what the production designer did, and the director of photography and the actors. I know all the long conversations and the effect a first assistant director can have on a shoot. I’ve never, ever seen that written about. What I find interesting about film is that it’s collaborative.”

The three principal cast members are a key part of this collaboration. They lay out long, dialogue-heavy scenes as if they’re championship chess matches. “Alex’s idea was very much that he wanted people to care about all three characters at various points,” Gleeson says. “These are six-page scenes, some of them, and they’re tough to repeat and repeat and still find new things in. But there’s such joy in really knocking each other around over the course of the film.”

Garland likens the interplay between Caleb, Nathan and Ava — almost exclusively involving only two of them at any time — to the 1972 film Sleuth. The games these characters play threaten to boil over with every word. “It’s so finely tuned,” notes Isaac, who looks set to capitalise on his success in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. “The script has been calibrated carefully, and that does a lot of the work for you. Nathan is a man who clearly has a sophisticated mind, yet he gets drunk every night and has a dark engine. Those kinds of contradictions are fun to play.”

For Vikander, the challenge is particularly acute. “I wanted her to be close to human, for us to be able to connect, then find the elements that differed to make her offbeat, almost. Maybe make her too perfect.” It becomes clear that while Ava might be as emotionally present as any human, she doesn’t think in the way we do.

“But because she is a robot, you can kind of start with a blank sheet,” Vikander says. “I’ve danced a lot in my life, and I tried to find my way with her physicality first, and a certain voice. There’s a pureness to her — she’s a newborn, in a way.”

On set, Garland shows me concept designs for Ava, and over the 18-month period I spend following Ex Machina’s production, I watch the robot evolve. There’s a rationale behind the way she has been constructed, which combines technological function with sleek aesthetics. Everyone responsible seems determined to create a being that inspires the emotional fervour that greets the latest Apple launch.

“The design is post-iPhone,” Garland says. “There’s an elegant simplicity we associate with technology now that, when I was younger, we didn’t. Technology was messy. If you looked at the keyboard of a ZX Spectrum, it wasn’t elegant. Now it’s, ‘Can you reduce everything down to one button?’ Then, ‘Can you get rid of the button?’ It’s elegant utilitarianism.”

“I just wanted to be looking at Ava the entire time,” he continues. “For the whole thing to work at all, you have to fall in love with this machine.” As mentioned earlier, Garland is by no means scared of robot evolution. On the contrary, he suspects that truly conscious AI might be the next logical step in our evolution, able to carry the breadth of our knowledge into the future when our planet is no longer able to support life. But he knows we’re not nearly there yet.

He’s somewhere in the edit on Ex Machina when a story breaks that the Turing test has been passed. The test, devised at the birth of computer science by Alan Turing, was meant to determine whether a machine could pass for a human. But the latest headline bears little scrutiny, in Garland’s — and many others’ — eyes. The “chatbot” getting the credit might have fooled a small percentage of judges, but it’s an illusory pass at best, he says, and no demonstration of artificial consciousness, which is what the test is all about.

The Norwegian location underscores one of the film’s key contrasts. Nathan’s hypermodern facility is more of a lab than a home — yet it’s set in one of the greatest landscapes on Earth. The surface buildings used in the film are part of the Juvet Landscape hotel, in Valldal, a stunning collection of cabins that have been built right into the forest, overlooking a white-water river and vast fjords.

“It’s a film about technology and science at its peak, yet it’s set within this wilderness,” Garland says. “There are clear cuts between the landscape and the concrete, or between the delicate machine and these huge mountains she gets swamped by.”

For all the thinking that has gone into every frame, Garland is mostly just curious to know how the film will play to an audience. He wrote The Beach as a critique of backpacker culture, yet it became the bible for a generation of travellers, so he knows the challenge.

“My private intentions are irrelevant. Will it ultimately be interesting? Will it make you think? Will it make you feel? If those things collide, then it could be quite lovely… But we’ll see.”

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