Ex Machina, the directorial debut of novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, is a film about interrogations. It follows Caleb, a young programmer who is summoned to his employer’s home and asked to administer the Turing test on an artificially intelligent robot named Ava. Caleb finds her confined to a glass chamber. He sits on his side of the partition and peppers Ava with questions, hoping to determine that she is sentient. These interrogations give Ex Machina its structure as well as its narrative thrust. Title cards bill them as “sessions”: Session one, session two—seven sessions in all.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, Alex Garland walks into a suite at Toronto’s Trump Hotel and settles in for his latest session. Ava’s pen was also filmed in a hotel: the Juvet, in Valldalen, Norway. While the desperate opulence of the Trump is a world apart from the Juvet’s crisp lines and penal austerity, the suite’s layout establishes a similar interrogator-interrogatee dynamic. Thus, Garland makes a beeline to the hot seat. He sits in front of one Ex Machina’s promotional posters in such a manner that Ava—Alicia Vikander’s face alloyed with a body made of glass, mesh, and textured silicone—is looking over his shoulder. On the poster, she’s not in her enclosure. She’s not the one being interrogated today.
We’ve got a lot of reason at the moment to be paranoid as people were in the 70s.
“It’s always about Ava for me,” Garland says. Of course, allegiances are never that neat and Garland confesses to having warmed to aspects of other characters. But, he maintains, “All I can say is I’m with Ava.”
“I see a sentient creature trapped in a glass box,” Garland explains. There are disturbing things in that box: wigs, costumes, images of girls. “That would be a tormenting personally disruptive thing to encounter,” he continues. The torments don’t end there. “There’s the jailer (Oscar Isaac’s Nathan) and the jailer is predatory and frightening and intimidating. Then the jailer’s friend (Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb) turns up who may or may not be trustworthy.” In this situation, who wouldn’t side with Ava?
“I’m aware some people will ally themselves with Nathan, some with the young man, and some with Ava,” Garland admits. He compares his predicament to that of a legislator: Even the clearest of edicts will be picked apart by a variety of parties. In narrative, he argues, the potential for ambiguity is multiplied by “a googolplex.” Its exponents have exponents. All of this math adds up to some viewers inevitably siding with Nathan or Caleb. “I just have to accept that because that’s part of the contract of handing a narrative over to the public,” Garland concedes.
Yet the director is hardly powerless when it comes to influencing his audience. Ex Machina is a proud work of science fiction that embodies the genre’s freedoms as well as its attendant expectations. Those expectations, like a reptilian shapeshifter, morph into freedoms “One of the good things about genre is that it gives you stuff that is quite easy to subvert,” Garland says. Characters and audience members bring their experiences with films like Blade Runner to Nathan’s lair. Garland therefore admits to having enjoyed “nudging the audience” and “let(ing) them float down that path.”
“I like Sci-Fi because of its permissions,” Garland says. “If you present overtly big philosophical ideas as are contained in this movie in another genre or in adult drama—literary adult drama—people are embarrassed of it.” His screenplay for Ex Machina shows no shortage of ideas. It addresses the male gaze, patriarchal power structures, the surveillance state, the meaning of sentience, and scientific ethics. Ex Machina has such a surfeit of ideas that it’s hard to imagine Garland leaving them all behind.
Everyone who’s on a film who’s doing a good job, they’re making it better: The DOP, the production designer, the actors, everyone.
If, however, Garland were to leave Sci-Fi’s permissive confines, he’d be interested in making a political thriller along the lines of The Parallax View or All the President’s Men. “When those are gripping there’s something just wonderful about them,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of reason at the moment to be paranoid as people were in the 70s.”
Though Garland doesn’t describe Ex Machina as an explicitly political film, it contains much of this paranoia. Nathan, the genius bro who created an all-conquering search engine and social network, is as much a creature of the current tech scene as he is a Sci-Fi archetype: Dr. Frankenstein meets Elon Musk. “You shouldn’t trust tech companies,” Garland posits. “It doesn’t matter if you know whether they’re doing anything wrong or not, they’re so powerful that the correct position to take on them is distrust.” At a time when tech companies collaborate with governments or outstrip their influence, concerns about their power are arguably political. In that respect, Ex Machina may very well be Alex Garland’s first political thriller.
Garland’s concerns with power dynamics extend beyond the realms of politics and science to include his own work as a filmmaker. He rejects the claim that he and other filmmakers are auteurs. Ask him why and he’ll interject with “because it’s bullshit” before the question has fully left your lips. “I have got very tired of the stuff that comes with the reflexive offering to the director of creative ownership on films,” he explains, his speech slowing as if to ask “Again with this nonsense?” But he perseveres: “I’ll accept it on some films by some people: Paul Thomas Anderson, Rian Johnson, the Cohen brothers. That’s absolutely fine. I’ve got no problem with it. But we just say it’s everywhere and it’s not everywhere and it’s not with me.”
In most of the stuff I’ve worked on there’s some sort of subtext that is roughly ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid’
“Everyone who’s on a film who’s doing a good job,” Garland argues, “they’re making it better: The DOP, the production designer, the actors, everyone.” This has been the case with every movie on which he’s worked. Danny Boyle directed an adaptation of his fist novel, “The Beach”, in 2000. Garland subsequently wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, both of which were directed by Boyle, as well as for Never Let Me Go and Dredd. The experience of being on these sets convinced Garland that fealty to the all-powerful director is often misplaced.
In Garland’s telling, Ex Machina was also the product of a collaborative ethos. After writing the screenplay, Garland sent it to a geneticist, a feminist, and an AI researcher to look it over. “Be cold,” he told them, “Because not only am I trying to set them up with the characters, but I distrust myself.” There were many more people whose judgment he trusted in making Ex Machina. Oscar Isaac, for instance, came up with the idea of giving Nathan a Bronx accent to offset his intellect. “I’d never get that because I’m not American. I don’t know what a Bronx accent means,” Garland admits. Likewise, he says “Alicia created and came up with” Ava’s movements. “She had a way of approaching Ava which movement was key to.”
As Garland extolls the work of his cast and crew, Ava continues to look on from the film’s poster. Nathan is not in the frame. The face of Ex Machina, then, is the creation as opposed to the creator. The film, in a sense, is about the creative process and the fear of putting your work out in the world. In that reading, Nathan is the ultimate auteur.
Asked if he sides with Ava because of his aversion to auteurism, Garland initially laughs. “Whether I was playing that out in the film? I don’t know,” he later explains. But in a sense, he does. “I’ll tell you what, though, in most of the stuff I’ve worked on there’s some sort of subtext that is roughly ‘don’t drink the Kool-Aid’,” he says. “I think a lot of that auteur stuff is the Kool-Aid, and all the power stuff, that’s the Kool-Aid.”