Lanky, blonde programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is in for the biggest test of his life, and possibly in the history of humanity: the Turing Test to end all Turing Tests. His job is to determine whether the sleek, feminine Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android designed by Jobsian media mogul—and Caleb's boss—Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a sentient being or simply a machine that seems sentient. Ava's response will be the first move in a sprawling mental chess game of emotion, deception, and willpower, the winner of which could change what it means to be human.
These are the stakes in Ex Machina, the directorial debut from Sunshine and 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland, out in theaters today from A24 Films. Ava's no HAL, Skynet, or David, however, and Garland has a different view on artifical intelligence than that of futurists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. "The film is definitely not supposed to be a cautionary tale about AIs," Garland says in our new documentary on the film, which you can watch above. "The caution is all aimed at the humans, from my point of view."
The film's ability to straddle the line between character drama and sci-fi fable hinges upon Vikander's graceful, extra-human performace. Explains Garland, "She does the uncanny valley with her physical behavior, her actions and motions. So there's nothing obviously robotic about the way she moves. In a way what she does is perfect versions of what we do."
Gleeson and Isaac's response to Vikander's 21st Century femme fatale had to drive the story, in lieu of modern sci-fi tropes like spaceships and explosions. "We had $15 million, that's a huge amount of money. I mean it's low budget by the standards of, I don't know, Avengers or something. But it's big budget by other standards," Garland explains. The resources freed him to create a Hollywood-caliber film built on cinematography, realistic special effects, and a masterfully crafted screenplay.
Garland's background as a screenwriter was integral Ex Machina's production. "It all comes down to it being three roles and set in a very contained space… just with the words and the dialogue you create action, thriller, sci-fi, drama," Vikander recounts. The tension in that contained space pushes the narrative faster than any hyperdrive. "It''s very rare that you get to play a character in a film where the action scenes are dialogue scenes," Isaac adds.
As integral to Garland's budget as the character-driven nature of the story was its setting in the very near future. "We didn't sort of have to reinvent the mugs that people drink tea out of and the telephones they use," he explains. "In design terms, that suited a low-budget film, which this was."
Ava meets Kyoko (
The one exception to this rule is Ava, her CGI body containing the film's most highly concentrated sci-fi concepts—a sharp contrast to the canny smartphones and desktop computers that color the rest of the film. "One [concept] is this strong AI exists as a mind, and the other that this level of robotics exists as a physical thing," explains Garland. "Both of them are complete fantasies, and we're way off that."
Fantasy is a good word for what Garland creates in Ava. "The way we put it together, and everything that surrounds this robot, I can see I’m just infatuated with he robot," says Garland. "I'm always on the robot's side. However it seems in the film, I'm always with that robot. […] And I can see that when I'm watching the film. The love story is between me and the robot."
Ex Machina opens in theaters today.