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We Talked to Filmmaker Alex Garland About His New Film ‘Ex Machina’

The author of the novel "The Beach" and the screenplays for "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine" directed a bleak new movie about technology, consciousness, and sex.

by Joseph Walsh
Jan 16 2015, 4:53pm

Alex Garland with Alicia Vikander on the set of 'Ex Machina'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

"We don't have an example of consciousness that doesn't have a sexual component," says Alex Garland of Ava, a character played by Alicia Vikander in his directorial debut Ex Machina. "Maybe there's a correlation—perhaps sentience comes out of the need for communication, and sex is part of that."

Garland's slick sci-fi movie—visually beautiful and informed by the latest scientific theories—is a three-hander. Its main characters are Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a wealthy tech genius; Ava, a sexualized artificial intelligence; and a lowly coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who's won a company competition to spend a week with Nathan at his isolated Alaskan lad-pad and test out his latest invention: Ava.

There are few female robots in cinema who aren't an object of sexual desire, be it the machine-gun breasted fembots in Austin Powers, or the latex clad T-X of the abysmal Terminator 3. Ava is equally sexualized, but in Garland's hands this concept is more about undermining the way in which women can be objectified by men.

Garland's film is as much a comment on ever-advancing techology and what that means for humanity (spoiler: It's really fucking bleak) as it is a comment about how society presents and views women in their early 20s. In the film, Nathan quickly illustrates one of the reasons he created his AI masterpiece: Robot Ava has a fully functional vagina. Robot Ava is for men to dominate.

"There is something weird going on with social structures and gender," Garland continues. "I think there's an argument that there is no difference between a male and female brain—I think brains are genderless."

Still from 'Ex Machina'

The other primary issue, as with almost any movie about AI, is what exactly defines a consciousness, and whether or not it can be created as genderless. Garland's been fascinated by the nature of consciousness and technology for years. He recalls how, in his younger years, he would mess about with computers, creating simple programs that mimicked conversation, making it look and almost feel like you were having a chat with a machine. Years later, the idea for Ex Machina came from an argument he had with a friend who thought that we, as a species, would never be able to create a fully formed AI. Garland disagreed.

Before making films, Garland was a novelist, and first explored the idea of consciousness (separate from tech) with his third novel Coma, a delirious literary exploration of the mental landscape of an unconscious man following a brutal attack on the London tube. For Garland, whether it's a book, a video game or a film, it all comes from the same passion.

"I write out of compulsion about what I'm obsessed with—there's no real choice; it happens," he tells me. "Then I try to persuade people to fund the project and cope with the fallout. There seems to be a pattern."

A still from 'Ex Machina'

Garland tells me about his 15 years of experience in the film industry, which began in 2000 with Danny Boyle's adaptation of his first novel, The Beach. I ask how he feels about the cult hit. "When you say The Beach is cult, what you mean is that it is something that doesn't work commercially, but some people really take to their heart," he answers.

I get the sense he's talking more about Boyle's film than his novel, which remains a near-biblical text to any perpetual backpacker.

"I'm concerned how people are receiving my work, but more so where film is concerned," he tells me. "My experience of working in film is either surviving by the skin of my teeth or losing a lot of money."

While his films may not have always been successful at the box office, he still has an impressive list of credits, including writing the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine (his third collaboration with Boyle); adapting Kazu Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go; and the highly underrated Dredd. Besides 28 Days, they've all remained relatively underground.

I ask if he's even really searching for commercial success. "The problem with commercialism, and how people view it, is that they think that it's a choice," he says. "The reality is that it's either in you or it isn't. I don't need my films to be gangbusters."

Still from 'Ex Machina'

"I would really love if Ex Machina didn't present me with the same problem, so I don't have to turn around and say, 'Sorry guys, I know last time didn't really work out, but this time I'm really sure.' I feel like I'm constantly doing this tap dance routine," he says.

But surely being in the director's chair means he had more control?

"There's a strange deification of the word 'director,'" he says. "I just can't be bothered with it. If there is a deification of something, it's usually hiding something. It's all gibberish. All I can say from my experience of working in film is that it's a collaborative process; it's a group of people working together. I can't see why people have a problem with this idea. The thing I love about film is that it's a collaboration."

Ex Machina is in theaters on January 21 in the UK, and April 10 in the US

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