If I don’t do it, someone else will do it. It’s like putting a red button in front of any human. Inevitably, someone will push it.
Already recognized for his screenwriting work on 28 Days Later… (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Never Let Me Go (2010), Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, took New York and Los Angeles by storm this past week. The story begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who wins a trip to the subterranean compound owned by his overly chummy employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a multi-billionaire search-engine mogul. It appears that the boss-man has lassoed the moon by creating an artificial life form that has both consciousness and a gorgeous, fully functional female body. Gleeson is supposed to take her for a test run, so to speak. Her name is Ava (newcomer Alicia Vikander) and she’s something else, indeed.
With the help of Double Negative’s insatiable VFX work, Ava is familiar, recalling Bjork in Chris Cunningham’s “All is Full of Love” clip, yet unique, navigating her “cage” like a futuristic faun, with a translucent midriff and wires curling along her torso in the shape of a spine. Her heart, in a sense, is there for all to see. And it’s Vikander’s possession of the spirit in the machine that truly marks Ava out. With a ballerina’s poise, her every movement from footfall to facial tick is performed with pinpoint precision: mechanical enough for her to convince as automation, with an organic tactility that nourishes her chemistry with Gleeson while the pair gets to know each other from either side of a Silence of the Lambs-like glass partition. This is 2015’s first masterpiece.
Ex Machina is now playing in select theaters.
Alicia, how long did you have to sit in the make-up chair every day?
Alicia Vikander: I spent 4.5 hours in make-up, but I think we got it down to 3 hours and 45 minutes in the end. I think my peak call time was 3:50 a.m., to be on set by 8. They just did a mold of my body. A lot of people assume that it’s a lot of green screen action going on, but you don’t need that anymore, apparently. That’s what I had thought, too, initially. The silver mesh that you see was a full bodysuit, so I looked like Spider-Man. They sleeved up my hands and put a silver mesh on the top of my head with a bald cap. They built my forehead on top of my skull. So I had the form that you see with Ava in the film—that’s actually me. They just took away some of the parts in post-production. I didn’t diet that hard. [Laughs]
Why do you think we’re all so fascinated by artificial intelligence?
Oscar Isaac: You can even trace it back further to the idea of us creating Frankenstein or something that we can’t control. We know that we’re the top dogs on the planet and we also know how shitty we are. [Laughs] So the idea that we can create something we can’t control or imbue with some of our worst qualities, I think, is just a reality.
Alicia: All of these questions about consciousness and A.I. always comes down to talking about human beings in the end. It’s our fears, making something that’s its own world.
Oscar: I think it forces us to ask questions about the nature of our self-awareness or consciousness, which every religion is basically trying to figure out. This is just another way of talking about it because if your job is to reconstruct, basically, a human mind, where do you start? What is necessary? Is sexuality necessary? What kind of interaction is necessary? Is some sense of organic material there? It’s all of these things that make us who we are. Is consciousness just a byproduct of something else happening?
Alicia: Yeah, it’s reading about the human brain and realizing that it all comes down to signals and hormones and love to get a chemical form. In trying to describe whatever it is that you’re feeling, you start to read it like that and see your whole body as a machine. You just end up in your head trying to fantasize about it. If it all came down to those parts, could we learn to create those individual parts and just put them all together?
I think Alex [Garland] pulled a lot of influence from that Murray Shanahan book about conscious embodiment. Did you guys talk about that?
Oscar: Well, there were so many elements that he drew from it. For me, it was very important to sit and talk with Alex. That actually was one, though. There were a lot of [Daniel C.] Dennett’s material and Noam Chomsky’s stuff on language, which was very fascinating. It’s even echoed in what Caleb says: “Some people believe that language is inherent in them and it’s just about unlocking the tools to let it come out.” So, yeah, all of that was interesting to at least get some sort of understanding of it. There was no way I could ever really, truly understand what that’s all about.
What about the Turing test? Did you look deep into that?
Oscar: What’s interesting is that it’s not really about the Turing test in the film, you know what I mean? That’s actually a ruse. The idea is that you’re doing this Turing test to see if she’s conscious, but she’s obviously conscious the moment you meet her. So there’s another test that’s happening and it wasn’t as important to delve too much into that.
When it came to constructing your character, Nathan, did you talk about the film in relation to the familiar question that’s often asked in science fiction regarding morality? Do you talk to Alex about the guiding principal behind Nathan’s intellectual pursuits?
Oscar: I would actually describe it as ethical questions more so than moral ones, but that’s just semantics. The ethical question being, when you know that something is self-aware, what is your responsibility? Nathan finds himself in this interesting predicament where every time he creates this machine, he gets it to a point where it’s self-aware and wants to escape. I think he doesn’t have much empathy for human beings, so why would he have much empathy for this creation? He knows that he will eradicate it for the next evolution of it anyway. Caleb asks in the film, “Don’t you feel bad for her?” and Nathan says, “I feel bad for us because this is the end of us.” He knows that it’s inevitable.
Alicia: And my line in the script was, “Well, because I can.”
Oscar: Right, it’s like, “Wouldn’t you?”
Alicia: When it comes down to it, with all things, it’s about evolution. If I don’t do it, someone else will do it. It’s like putting a red button in front of any human. Inevitably, someone will push it.
Technology advances so fast, and if mankind is advancing with it, how pessimistic or optimistic are you about what might happen? Where do you find yourself on that spectrum?
Oscar: I’m on the pessimistic side, for sure. [Laughs] I think history has shown us that we tend to lose control very quickly over, not only the machines, but systems whether it’s economic or social. I don’t have any reason to believe that it would start to be different.
Alicia: I would say that I’m probably the same, except it’s that difference where everything we’ve made so far doesn’t have consciousness. Maybe that’s a good thing. My whole point is, if we made something that’s conscious, maybe it’s even greater.
Oscar: I think Alex would say he’s an optimist. He’s pessimistic like humans, but optimistic about the machines. Then you have people like [Ray] Kurzweil who’s a futurist and very optimistic. He believes that as the machines get more sophisticated, we will actually become more machine-like with nano technology and different ways that allow us to compete with the things we create.
How did you find your movement for Ava because I found it quite original and skillfully carried out. And Oscar, don’t get me wrong. I remember that disco dance.
Oscar: [Laughs] Well, one of the things I liked about the script was that Alex created this very cerebral character who’s also incredibly physical. He’s constantly working out, gratuitously so. I thought that was really great because, not only is he Caleb’s intellectual superior, but he’s Caleb’s physical superior as well. Nathan is someone who’s seemingly insurmountable, so once the tables finally turn, it’s satisfying. And, yeah, the dance sequence, which was such a disco non sequitur, was fantastic. Alex hired this great choreographer and we spent a couple weeks rehearsing to get us all synched up. The idea is that this guy is by himself and haven’t seen other humans for however many years. What else are you gonna do when you’re all alone?
Alicia: I so pushed to have Ava in the same dance. [Laughs]
Oscar: She joins in?
Alicia: I spent a lot of time trying to find the physicality and the voice of Ava because it had to be something we hadn’t seen before. I tried to embody the fact that I knew, like Nathan knows, that she already has consciousness. My aim was not to portray and fake a robot—it was to make a girl. If it’s this creature or machine’s main will to become a girl, we wanted to aim for that. It’s her trying to perfect the walk of a human or trying to perfect talking like one. That actually makes her more robotic because humans have flaws and we’re inconsistent, maybe more than Ava is. That’s what makes us read her strangely or think she’s offbeat.
Oscar: It’s great because it’s acting self-awareness. She’s an entity that’s hyper self-aware and that’s a very hard thing to do.
Alicia: It’s about her being a bit more perfect, a bit more human. The 2.0 human is Ava and that makes her different from us.
How did you want her to evolve over the course of the narrative?
Alicia: I did want it to be a bit of a journey. We have Ava in a room and she meets, for the first time, a second human being or the first human apart from her maker. I think she’s very curious. I think she wants to read Caleb more than she does Nathan, who she maybe pushes away a bit.
At the end of the film, Ava gets on a helicopter, but we don’t hear what she’s saying. Was it always like this?
Alicia: Ava doesn’t actually say anything in the script, interestingly enough. But it was handled differently.
Oscar: It was a very cool thing, yeah.
Alicia: You never get the explanation from her. From her point of view, it was just pulses coming out.
Oscar: The way it was scripted and not in the film, you see from her point of view for the first time and her point of view is completely alien to ours. There’s no actual sounds, you just see pulses and all of this crazy stuff. Conceptually, that was very interesting because in that moment you probably think, “Oh, she was lying this whole time!” But maybe not because she’s just experiencing it differently and that doesn’t mean it’s not consciousness necessarily. Ultimately, I don’t think that worked out in the cut.
Since you have a superior intellect to everyone you meet and have the ability, your character has the ability to—
Oscar: Oh, thank god! Not Oscar. [Laughs]
Your character’s so capable, yet he never thought to make a kill switch.
Oscar: Yeah, but he explains why. His whole point is to create something that will be smart enough to escape. He’s not looking for control. He makes something that’s self-aware and immediately wants to escape. He makes something that wants to escape, but too stupid to. It’s like, let’s go onto the next one. This one’s getting better, this one’s getting better, this one getting better… So when Nathan finally makes one that could maybe escape, he brings somebody else in.
Alicia: In the end, Nathan kind of reached his goal.
Oscar: Yeah, he reached this moment where he’s made the singularity. He’s dangling a piece of cheese, Caleb, in front of her to see how smart he’s made this one—he says that. It’s the idea of the god complex, but he knows that one of them is going to be smart enough to escape one way or another. When that happens, we’re done, and why not me to be the one who does it?
How did this project come to you guys? When did it come to you?
Alicia: I was in Australia shooting Son of a Gun when I got the script. I was really sad because I didn’t think I had much chance. I thought there was no way I could ever get in a room with Alex or anyone involved with the film. Thankfully, I was able to. I actually called the director of photography and the assistant director of the film I was on after we finished shooting for the day around 1 a.m. and they helped me for 3 hours. They helped me learn the lines and we made a tiny short film that was around 10 minutes long.
Oscar: That made the rounds because I heard about this tape. My agent said, “It was the most amazing audition ever.”
Alicia: I put sunscreen lotion on my face and that made Ava very different from the one in the film, but it was a lot of fun to do. [Laughs] I sent the tape in and got on the phone with Alex. I was surprised! It was still quite early in my career and they just told me I got the part.
Oscar: For me, Alex was doing one of those speed dating things where you meet a bunch of actors at a hotel, one after the other. I was one in a line of many. I had already gotten incredibly obsessed over Sunshine, which he wrote, and it was actually the first movie I auditioned for just out of school. I read that script and I was so obsessed with it, so I was well-aware of Alex already.
Alicia: You kissed his ass.
Oscar: I kissed his ass! I kissed every inch of that ass. [Laughs] We basically talked about science for an hour. The next day, he had offered me the part, which was awesome.