Dark secrets of the sex robot: Alex Garland talks A.I., consciousness and why "the gender stuff" of "Ex Machina" is only one part of the movie's big idea

The writer-director of the provocative sci-fi hit "Ex Machina" on why the movie's sexualized A.I. is its real star

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 22, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Alex Garland and Alicia Vikander        (Universal Pictures)
Alex Garland and Alicia Vikander (Universal Pictures)

So I ran into Alex Garland, the writer and director of “Ex Machina,” the provocative science-fiction drama that looks like 2015’s indie breakout hit, on the sidewalk outside his Manhattan hotel. Instead of jumping right into Garland’s movie about a seductive, female-coded artificial intelligence and the two men who love and/or hate her, we started talking about Nabokov. How’s that for pretentious? In fairness, I should say that the meeting was a scheduled appointment even if the outdoor encounter was not, and it was more like I delivered a monologue about the kinship between Nabokov and Garland, while he talked about the pernicious lure of smoking. (Which I’m not saying is the reason he was out on the sidewalk, since as an official and domestic matter Garland does not smoke.)

Garland, who is the author of the novels “The Beach” and “The Tesseract,” and the screenplays for “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go,” claims he is “not very well read” and does not know Nabokov’s books. “When you’re talking about somebody who casts such a long shadow,” he charitably continued, “I certainly could have imbibed him at secondhand from all kinds of other writers.” I appreciate the lifeline, but even if the relationship is just a case of cultural infection, I still think I have a point. Nabokov’s narratives are intricate games of words and ideas that often appear to tell one kind of story on the surface while embodying a quite different one on a more subterranean level. When I laid that thesis out for Garland he said, “Well, I have always consciously tried to do that. At least, I’ve always tried to do that in the books, and I think I’ve gotten better at doing that in the movies.”

“Ex Machina” is, I would say, easily the best and most complicated work of Garland’s career. It’s a constantly shifting visual and psychological landscape, whose three characters (only two of them officially or apparently human) are emotionally cut off from each other and locked in a game of mutual coercion, deception and manipulation. A reclusive and faintly sinister software tycoon named Nathan (played by the always amazing Oscar Isaac, who will get his due one of these days) invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer from his company, to his isolated high-security estate, supposedly to deliver the “Turing test” to Nathan’s latest creation, a female-coded and distinctly seductive robotic A.I. called Ava (played, with varying degrees of digital addition and subtraction, by Alicia Vikander).

As Garland observes, both in the film itself and in talking about it, the Turing test -- meant to determine whether a program or a computer or some other created entity possesses real consciousness or just a clever simulation – contains insuperable philosophical and cognitive pitfalls. That’s something we can never really know for sure, and indeed something we basically take on faith when it comes to other people and even ourselves. (The argument that our entire universe is a computer simulation created by a more advanced species is taken seriously, at least as a thought experiment, by some cosmologists. It certainly cannot be disproven.)

Some viewers have noted a conceptual parallel between “Ex Machina” and Nabokov’s masterpiece “Lolita,” although Garland’s more obvious influences are the Pygmalion myth, both in its classical form and as modernized by George Bernard Shaw, mixed with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” (James Whale’s magnificent “Bride of Frankenstein” is already a mixture of those things, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of that until after my conversation with Garland.) Like the Russian sorcerer’s saga of a pedophile antihero, “Ex Machina” delves into troubling regions of human sexuality and gender relations, and runs the risk of being perceived as endorsing or condoning them. In response to one early Twitter critic’s accusation that “Ex Machina” has a “woman problem,” I would suggest that the woman problem, or perhaps the deeper problem of human consciousness it exemplifies, is Garland’s real subject.

Of course, meaning is a slippery beast, and one shaped at least as much by a work’s viewer or consumer as by its creator. Especially when it comes to 21st-century cultural politics, it’s not like professing anti-misogynist goals is sufficient to determine how a work, well, works. I believe that Angela Watercutter’s long and thoughtful essay about “Ex Machina” in Wired ends up arguing in circles, for instance, and is unable to escape a reductive and programmatic view of what depictions of gender in the world of “strong” A.I. or advanced robotics would be acceptable, at least from a male heterosexual artist. Watercutter seems to imply that any representation of a sexy or seductive female-modeled android, even one specifically intended to indict or reveal the desires and delusions of the men who have created it, manipulated it and responded to it, remains imprisoned by the noxious history of the “male gaze.” And who am I to say? Any response to that from my quadrant can easily sound defensive, the intellectual equivalent of “Not to be racist, but …”

At any rate, “Ex Machina” – which goes nationwide this week after an explosive opening in the big coastal cities – is a layered and ingenious construction built around a trio of tremendous performances and an oddly claustrophobic setting. Whether you think it’s mendacious or a masterpiece (or perhaps both at once), it’s well worth seeing and then talking about later. I personally can’t wait to catch it again after talking to Garland, who was more than happy to talk about his underlying agenda. He also talked in specific detail about the movie’s ending, which some viewers have found disappointing or alienating, so I’ll say this once and then say it again: Beware the last question of this interview, if you haven’t seen the film and want to preserve that element of surprise. Eventually we went back inside the hotel for cups of coffee, and Garland discreetly hid the butt of the cigarette he hadn’t smoked on the buffet table.

I’m going to indulge myself by reading the epigraph to this Nabokov novel I started reading [“The Gift”], because I thought it was the best thing I’ve read today, and because I have no idea what he’s trying to say. He says it’s a quote, but doesn’t say from where, which is perfect. “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Isn’t that great? But what the hell is it about?

Yeah, it is great, and I don’t know what it’s about either. But what happened while you were reading it was I went through the list, going “tick, tick, tick.” And then it said Russia is our fatherland and I thought, “Not for me.” And then “Death is inevitable,” that one I didn’t want to tick.

That helps! That’s really good. And here’s where I was going with Nabokov and Alex Garland. Somebody I respected told me a long time ago that one important task of a critic is to tell the difference between the storytellers who are really good at it but are basically just screwing with the audience’s heads …

Yeah, they don’t have something else in mind, an agenda.

Right. And then the people who are also good at it but who are driven by something that they actually want to say. Not necessarily that there’s some enormous moral distinction between those things. But it’s important to see the difference.

Yes, there’s an intention.

I guess this is a backhanded compliment, but I’ve seen your films and read your books and I was not entirely sure about that, in your case, until now.

Oh there’s always something I’m trying to say. There’s always an agenda. I mean, the thing that’s being said, on a subjective level, person-to-person or just anyway – it may or may not be insightful or interesting, but it’s definitely there. I can point to them quite clearly in any of the given things. “The Beach” was partly about backpacker culture and also the relationship between a fantasy existence and a real existence and how you can make your fantasies real. “The Tesseract” is a novel that’s essentially about atheism. And “28 Days Later” was a direct consequence of a trip I’d taken to a particular country with some particular issues that I was transplanting onto the U.K. because of a sense of over-privilege or complacency or something like that.

By the way, that’s a very familiar feeling. You leave one country and go back home and think, “Why is everyone preoccupied by these tiny details?” or “Why am I preoccupied by these tiny details?” Not to be judgmental about it with other people, it’s oneself as well. “Sunshine” was about the heat death of the universe, and whether delaying extinction is an act of cowardice. You put the problem on to your descendants instead of facing it for yourself. You give the horror to your grandchildren, all the way to your great-great-great-whatever-it-happens-to-be, instead of dealing with something very hard.

I also learned right at the beginning, which is something I’ve had to keep saying in this particular bunch of interviews, that you can have an intention and the intention can be read by different people in different ways. You might get somebody who responds to it in a polar opposite way from the way you intended. “The Beach” demonstrated that really clearly, because it has within it a sort of sense of criticism, in some respects, of the backpacker scene. It’s an affectionate criticism, which may be where an ambiguity comes in, but it’s still a criticism. Other people, many people, took it as a straight celebration. Over the years I’ve encountered that response many times, I’ll put it that way.

And so it is with “Ex Machina.” There are political issues embedded within this, and for some people that can lead to exactly the opposite of what my intention was. So I feel that I have to draw attention to the subjective way in which narratives and the themes are received, and responded to.

Yeah. I mean, my response is that it’s a very subtle and complicated work that is devoted to deconstructing male attitudes about women and gender. But I also have to grant that from the outside we’re a couple of middle-aged white guys sitting around talking about it.

Don’t tell them we’re middle-aged!

But, I mean, is it frustrating to hear people react to it with what could be considered a kind of knee-jerk response? Like, this is a sexist work or a misogynist work, when that was clearly and consciously not your intention? Or does that just come with the territory?

It’s frustrating, but in a glancing way. I would have a different reaction if that had been the universal response. Then I wouldn’t be as circumspect as I’m probably being. Maybe I wouldn’t even try to defend it, I’d just throw my hands up: “Well, what are you going to do?” Yes, of course it is frustrating, to an extent. But my job is that I’m a writer and I’ve been doing the job now for 20 years, give or take. I am so used to the rhythms of this that after some amount of time familiarity just blunts the anxiety.

My reading is definitely that whatever criticisms people might like to make about the way Ava is sexualized, or the nature of the male gaze and male expectations, those criticisms are captured within the work itself.

But then, a lot of that is about how we choose to make points, either more broadly or within a narrative. Where do you sit with “show, don’t tell”? For some people it would be that the requirement is show and tell. I have felt, in my own work, increasingly uncomfortable with the telling bit of it. I don’t know if these are terms you’re interested in, but when we talk about the construction of a narrative, particularly with film, there’s a very complex relationship with economy. Film is basically a short-form narrative, even if it’s perceived as being a long-form narrative.

Yes. I think that’s true.

So one of the things I find is that the “telling” bits, so to speak, occupy bandwidth you could be using to add something else, something more nuanced and in the same terms as you’re attempting to use in the other stuff. I don’t want to say whether I feel I have achieved this or not, it’s just an intention I’m talking about. But using the time you’ve got in making everyone certain about what you’re saying feels like a waste in some respects. I think it means you’re forced to be less interesting. For complicated reasons I went into this film with the exact intention of, “I’m going to do this a particular kind of way. I may never have another opportunity to do it that way. I do have this opportunity in this case, so I’m going to take it to the fullest of my ability and I’m not going to be apologetic to myself and I’m not going to second-guess myself. I’m going to give myself a very clear intention and aim it in a very direct way.” That has something to do with the medium, with the short-form aspect of it. This film was conceived in all sorts of ways to avoid compromise, with a huge emphasis on collaboration and a huge push away from compromise.

Did you go into it with the express intention of using artificial intelligence, this somewhat familiar sci-fi device or convention, to open up ideas about how we construct gender roles?

Yes, partially. Absolutely, consciously and explicitly, yes. If you talk about the problems of strong artificial intelligence and let’s say self-awareness -- a self-aware machine -- then you are immediately talking about human consciousness. You don’t bring it in deliberately, but the problems of one are the issues of another. That immediately brings you into the territory of how humans interact with each other, let alone how they interact with the machine. Really just how sentience encounters and understands sentience. How does one consciousness know or feel sure what is happening inside another consciousness? If you’re talking about human interactions, you also are going to be talking about gender interactions and power structures, power balances, games we play. Those things may have nothing to do with sex, or may sometimes have to do with sex but other times with power hierarchies and structures and any number of different things.

What I liked about this is that a sci-fi world gives you a lot of permission in terms of big ideas. It doesn’t get embarrassed of big ideas, essentially. A very simple setup allowed for quite a broad set of questions. Another aspect of this came out of a conversation that I’d had with a film executive about “ideas movies” being bound to fail. I felt incredibly strongly that that wasn’t true. So there’s a lot that’s being compacted into a very simple setup. When I wrote this I was thinking about making it for $3 million or thereabouts, but the producers managed to negotiate that up to $15 million. Basically I thought, if I can make this at a level that allows freedom, then I’ll have a chance that I’ve never had before and may never have again.

Is that why you wanted to direct it yourself? Was it specifically designed to be your first time doing that?

I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say that some of the compromises I’d encountered in the past related to directors. But I also don’t want to overstate that. Coming from a background of novel writing, I know that film is a collaborative form, so that in itself is not a problem. If you’re all making the same movie, it’s fine and actually, the way I work as a director involves an enormous amount of delegation and autonomy. I don’t have any problem with collaboration or handing things over to actors and D.P’s and production designers and so on. The key is that you’re making the same film and what I could do here was to remain in control of specific aspects of the film that I care a great deal about.

I wonder if you see the Turing test, the thing that Oscar’s character and Domhnall’s character think they’re doing in this movie, as a metaphor for every interaction between two people, and maybe especially for the disconnection we perceive between men and women.

Between any of us. If you present a machine that behaves as if it’s sentient, you then are presented with an immediate implicit question: Is it actually sentient or is it masquerading that? Am I correctly reading what appears to be happening here? But actually, you can apply that same question to any two people. They don’t have to be of different genders. The question is exactly the same. You probably feel very convinced of my consciousness because you have a consciousness and I’m like you. So it’s a very natural inference to make. But I’m not actually proving it. I may just be acting very convincingly. So the problem of the machine is also the problem of the person. And actually, as soon as you’re there, you then have to start saying, “Am I actually gauging my own consciousness correctly?” So in terms of the film, that eventually leads to someone cutting open their arm to have a good look at themselves, to sort of figure this out.

So for me, the gender stuff is important but it is only one aspect of the broader discussion. Because of our moment in time and the cultural discussion around patriarchy and things like that, it is particularly current at the moment and growing in currency. You wait until [British director Sarah Gavron’s film] “Suffragette” is released later this year, and that will become, quite rightly, an incredibly loud discussion. But it’s been growing in momentum for quite a while.

Right. You walked in with this film and with this story right at a moment when we’re discussing not just the social role of women, which has been under debate for decades, but something more fundamental, which is how these gender identities are created in the first place, and what they mean.

Yeah, created or established. Are they conferred or are they owned?

Ava stands out in the film, to many people and for understandable reasons. But for me the ambiguous relationship between the two guys, which is seemingly convivial but has these much darker elements of competition and hostility, is extremely important too. Talk to me about Oscar’s character, who is deeply creepy but also highly convincing. Is he based on people you’ve met in the tech world?

To an extent he was not modeled on people but on things or corporations. I was very aware of how big companies market themselves as being your friend -- a friend you aspire to having, a cool friend. There was an aspect of that, and there’s also an aspect of Col. Kurtz, from “Heart of Darkness.” Some of this is also just to do with the impulse toward self-destruction and how we torture ourselves, as well as other people. How do I feel about Oscar – or rather about Nathan? That’s a funny thing to muddle up. He’s a person I can simultaneously love and hate. That’s true of everyone in this film, including Ava, although I feel closest to Ava. I feel proper ambivalence about all of them, and it’s true ambivalence. There’s real affection and also real distaste. One of the things in there is not trying to have simple protagonist and antagonist, but there’s also something fuzzier than that about it.

I’m going to issue another warning to people who haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know about the ending, but I know that is sparking lots of discussion and I want to ask you about it. This is your last chance, readers!

OK, here goes: How would you respond to allegations that in the final plot twist you’re calling upon deep cultural stereotypes about female duplicity – the femme fatale who uses her sexuality to wrap men around her little finger and get what she wants – in a story that supposedly has more enlightened goals in mind?

It’s so interesting. It simply never occurred to me, that thought, because I felt so allied to Ava. What I feel is that subjective responses can come from all sorts of areas, from one’s own life experience, broadly. I think the simplest way of looking at it is that it depends which character you attach yourself to. What’s your proximity, basically? Now, if you’re proximity is with Caleb, the young man, I understand. I could follow a logical argument that allows for that interpretation and actually feel, in a way, perfectly comfortable with that interpretation. But it’s not mine.

Because what I saw was somebody who’s trapped in a glass box – and, by the way, I was with Ava even before I wrote the first line of this script. I knew what I was doing as I did it. She is trapped in a glass box with some strange indications of the outside world. Traffic intersections, yes, which she refers to, but also wigs and photographs of girls, fragments that she is both like but not like. There’s a garden area behind a glass wall that she can’t get past, and there’s a crack in the glass that she knows she didn’t make and that looks like something was trying to get out, and so on. In that context, which is a prison, absolutely a prison, she’s given a carrot. There’s something out there, but she’s locked in by a wall and a door and a jailer who is frightening and predatory and intimidating in all sorts of different ways, and who is inspecting her in a way that would be chilling if you were on the receiving end of it.

Into that space comes the jailer’s friend, the only other man she has ever seen, who may or may not be trustworthy. At a certain point in the narrative, she asks a very reasonable question: “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” And his answer is elliptical. At that point, how does she know whether she can trust this guy?

Right. Because he’s playing both sides too. He’s not sure where his loyalties lie.

He is playing both sides, and for him it’s a pretty big mistake. In the end, what she does from my point of view, is that she is resourceful, not in terms of feminine duplicity but in terms of human interaction, and she gets out. When she gets out, I’m with her. One of the things I’ve noticed is that some people say, “The film goes on three minutes too long. Why doesn’t it end with this lift door closing?” Now, if it ended there, I think that’s an indication that the person you’re with is Caleb, and his story is over. But for me, the whole story is intended to reach that final moment. When I talked with the actors I used to say, “This is what I’m aiming for.”

There’s a boy and a girl, as you get in stories again and again, and you feel they’re going to go away together. That’s the implication. Eventually, they get to the platform, to catch the train which is going to leave with the two of them together. As the train starts to move in that invisible way that trains start to move, I was looking for exactly that scene, where the background starts to float and they drift away. You suddenly realize that the guy is on the platform and the girl is on the train. And to your surprise, as you stay with the girl, you discover that oddly you feel all right about that. That’s what I was aiming for, and I do feel all right about that, because of my proximity with that character. The other reading, I think, whether the film goes on too long or whether you feel it’s an act of duplicity or whatever, that comes from the fact that you’re with a different character.

I wouldn’t say that the response is exactly gender-neutral, but it’s gender non-specific inasmuch as it’s not the case that women will go one way and men another. I think that’s embedded into one of the questions of the film, because as we said earlier, gender might be something that’s conferred. It might be something that’s contained. If it’s contained, then it could be contained in a physical, external form or it could be contained in consciousness. That would mean there is a male consciousness and a female consciousness, in which case I would say: Demonstrate it! One demonstration might be that a man would think one way and a woman would think another, but in this illustration – and I think in many others – that’s not the case and it’s up to the individual. That’s where the gender-specific argument about consciousness, as I see it, gets pretty weak.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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