Filmmaker Alex Garland Humanizes the Machine

Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland is a thoroughly modern writer, intent on probing our most human urges and the boundaries that lie beyond the present moment.

Apr 29, 2015 at 9:18 am

Preparing for a phone interview with Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go), I found myself in a situation similar to that of the film’s protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the nose-to-the grindstone programmer who wins the opportunity to spend a week at the private retreat of his company’s elusive billionaire founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac). It’s all about seizing the chance to pick the brain of an impactful thinker, a cutting-edge creative type with their eyes on the far reaches of the human horizon.

Garland is a thoroughly modern writer, intent on probing our most human urges and the boundaries that lie beyond the present moment. He works in the speculative realm, but he’s not merely concerned with the future; instead, Garland investigates who we are as we move forward, with a fearlessness rooted in a willingness to embrace all aspects of what is to come.

He opened our discussion with almost a statement of purpose for the film.

In sci-fi and narrative terms, by writing about the relationship between a human and [artificial intelligence], you are effectively writing about the relationship between people,” Garland says. “Sci-fi can be speculative in that it is looking toward the future, but it can also be holding up a mirror in regards to what is happening right now. Sci-fi is very comfortable with that — that sort of dual function — and this particular narrative felt like it could encompass that sort of thing quite easily.”

Garland, especially in Ex Machina, dares to follow the back and forth volleys between man and machine. This, it would seem, is far scarier cultural territory for storytellers and the audience as well.

“Somewhere in all of this was me identifying a generalized sense of anxiety about artificial intelligence (AI),” Garland says. “Sometimes represented in public statements and also represented in narratives by the stories we tell each other in books and films and not feeling very personally connected with that anxiety because I felt really quite positive about AI and intrigued and looking forward to it.”

There’s a great idea that jumpstarts the philosophical action (if you will) in Ex Machina, once Nathan explains why he has invited Caleb to join him for the week. Introducing his secret project — the development of intuitive artificial intelligence housed in a human-like form (the coldly seductive Alicia Vikander as Ava) that is ready for the Turing test (proving self-awareness in the machine) — Nathan reinterprets Caleb’s initial statement of praise and wonderment, making the assertion that by creating a self-aware being he has become a god. But buried in Caleb’s first impression is a dual consideration: If man strives to be god-like, then maybe AI longs for humanity. 

“You could say creating new life isn’t necessarily a god thing, but a human thing,” Garland says. “It’s like a parental thing, what two adults do when they create a child. And if you frame AI in that way, with AI as a child, it’s the product of a human and a human mind, then some of the things that feel strange to us about AI actually stop feeling strange and stop feeling alarming and they start to feel more like an extension of us. And the sense of rivalry with them and the sense of fear we have gets slightly diminished.”

The more plugged-in members of the film-going audience will likely recall the same concerns popping up in Eva, from director Kike Maíllo, which screened briefly earlier this year. In that film, Daniel Brühl played a reclusive genius-level programmer who gets pulled back into upgrading his own software designs for a new robotic model with advanced AI. In the case of each film, we struggle with the almost Hitchcockian ratcheting of tension and anxiety, but also a sense of impending doom rather than anticipation for technological boon.

“We perceive artificial intelligence to be at a much more advanced state and to be moving much more quickly than it actually is,” Garland said. “Technology is moving very, very fast, but some of the advances in artificial intelligence are not moving that fast. We confuse the arrival of an Apple device on our wrists or amazing cellphones that can take pictures and surf the Internet and have beautiful screens that we can watch films on and stuff like that, with somehow mixing all of the technology up to us moving at this accelerated pace, and in the case of strong AI, it really isn’t. It may be something that could arrive, but more than likely it will not arrive in our lifetime.” 

EX MACHINA is now in theaters.