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Writer-director Alex Garland talks 'Ex Machina' and A.I.

Written by
Brent DiCrescenzo

The big terror in this summer's blockbuster movies is artificial intelligence. Ultron wages war against the Avengers and humanity. Skynet is sending more Terminators to wipe out John Connor and the proper spelling of "Genesis." Heck, even Pac Man is out to gobble Adam Sandler in Pixels. Surely, none of these popcorn shovelers will match the brains and legitimate science in Ex Machina. The film is flooded with fresh ideas of what A.I. might look like in our near future—and it's also a tense, sexy, eerie thriller set in a gorgeous Norwegian mountain retreat. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, two stars of the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, play CEO and employee, respectively, of a fictional Google-meets-Facebook-ish tech company. Isaac has created an android, Ava, and asks a programmer, Gleeson, to test her intelligence. 

The sleek, smart suspense flick is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the screenwriter of 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine and novelist of The Beach, to name a few of his works. We sat with the British director at the Waldorf Astoria to chat about his movie, A.I. and this best movie of the month.

There are a lot of movies lately about scary A.I. Is that because we’re on the cusp of A.I. becoming a reality?

My gut feeling is it's got much more to do with how we feel about big tech companies, and in particular search engines. On a day to day level what we feel is: Here’s this machine, my laptop my phone, and I use it every day. And I don’t know how it works, and I don’t know what it’s sort of thinking. I don’t know what it’s Hoovering up about me. But it seems to know a lot about me, and that makes me anxious. I suspect that’s where the zeitgeisty thing comes from. It’s got fuck all to do with actual A.I.

I’m guessing that’s why Nathan, Oscar Isaac's character, is a Facebook or Google type.

He wasn’t based on any CEO, more the companies. What they do is, what their vibe is, they do that kind of bro-speak at you. They’re like, “Yeah, no, I’m not a big tech company! I’m your mate! C’mon, dude, let’s hang out… While we’re hanging out, can you give me all your money and all your personal information? Cool, man." There’s this funny relaxed hipster vibe attached to these enormous corporations that are making more money than anyone else has, ever.

Because of Edward Snowden, people fear the NSA and the government, and yet they give a lot of their personal information to Google.

I’ve got some ambivalence about this. I feel suspicious, and there should be some transparency. On the other hand, I do love what some of these huge tech companies are doing. To me, they’re like NASA in the 1960s. Google, for whatever else they’re doing, is pouring money into A.I. research. And I dig A.I. research. I do not share the concerns about A.I. I think they are our long-term future. All I’m saying is that they’re really, really powerful and not accountable. It’s never turned out well in human history to have a huge amount of power without any checks and balances.

In past films, A.I.'s want to kill off humans. In Ex Machina, the evil is the A.I.’s injected humanity, or just humanity itself. 

Basically, yes. I feel more anxiety about people than I do machines. 

What kind of research did you do on artificial intelligence?

Loads. A few years ago, I worked on [the sci-fi movie] Sunshine. Retrospectively, I felt deeply frustrated with Sunshine in all sorts of ways, and one of them was that the quality of thought sometimes was just lousy. Stuff got chucked out the window because of plot. It annoyed me. On this film, I thought, I’m going to be much more considered about this; if you get this stuff wrong, the film is by definition crap.

In your books and films, there’s often a fear of isolation. Is that a real fear of yours?

Going back to the first book I wrote, The Beach, yeah. That’s actually why I don’t write books anymore—spending two years in a room on your own. The thing I love about film is that its collaborative. This directly relates to the big tech company thing. What we do when we don’t have other people around us is we get very eccentric, very fast. And "eccentric" sounds comfortable and cutesy, but it can be dangerous and mad, and it doesn’t take long. I know that from my job. I can easily spend six days not talking to anybody. By the end of it I’m a bit fucking nuts. I get fixated on that. Nathan is Kurtz [in The Heart of Darkness]. He’s spent too much time up-river.

The location of Ex Machina is stunning. How did you find it?

It’s a $15 million film, but a big chunk of that is the effects budget. We’re dealing with a character who’s one of the richest guys on the planet. How do you have an amazing pad for this guy when you don't have the money he’s got? We went to Norway. It’s got this amazing, desolate landscape. It’s verdant, but hard and intimidating—and it’s unfamiliar. Norwegians are incredibly affluent. You’re in the middle of nowhere and you find these incredible architectural buildings. This is a visitors center for a waterfall—it’s this bit of modern art in this landscape. We first looked in the Alps, but any place you look there is too cute. Two hundred years of tourism and chocolate boxes have ruined it. 

Ex Machina opens in Chicago on Friday, April 17.

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