Three characters trapped in a house debating human consciousness may not sound like the most exciting backbone for a movie. Yet in "Ex Machina," the directing debut for writer Alex Garland, that dry-sounding concept becomes the basis for a sci-fi thriller of sleek, gleaming surfaces and impressive intellectual depth, somehow managing to feel modern, futuristic and classical all at once.
"The challenge is — and this is such a bad way to sell a movie — the challenge is how do you make a movie which is basically a film of ideas?" Garland said recently. "And then part of the challenge is making those ideas accessible and dramatically interesting and trying to understand them."
Opening Friday, the film begins with young computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an internal company contest for a private visit with the reclusive tech industrialist Nathan (Oscar Isaac) — think Mark Zuckerberg plus Steve Jobs plus Howard Hughes — on his remote nature preserve estate. There, Caleb discovers that Nathan has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), a lifelike and beautiful robot with an artificial intelligence strengthened with data from the company's online search engines.
What begins as Caleb administering a series of tests designed to determine whether Ava has gained sentient self-awareness becomes a twisting game of wills and wits as the three characters battle for dominance and survival.
"One of the big things for me to figure out for my character was what's he doing on purpose, what's he accidentally doing, what's he in control of, what is he not in control of and then feeling all that," Isaac said. "Really we'd talk about the script as a whole and then look at it from every single angle to make sure it sticks together."
"There's a lot of misdirection in the film," Garland added.
The London-born Garland, 45, has had an intriguing path to his first directing credit. After his debut novel, the backpacking adventure "The Beach," was adapted into a movie, he reinvigorated the zombie story with his first screenplay, "28 Days Later." Alongside two more novels, he followed this up with scripts to the space drama "Sunshine" and adaptations of the novel "Never Let Me Go" and comic "Dredd." Taken together, it now appears as a consistently inventive body of work, full of big ideas, sharp storytelling and a complicated view of technology's interface with society.
For all its high-tech filigree, there is something elemental in the drama of "Ex Machina," a grounding in the basic forces of desire and power alongside headier ideas of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The film's serious ideas are put in relief by its escalating tension, and Garland was also well aware of baiting the trap in how the gender dynamics between Caleb, Ava and Nathan would all play out.
"If you look at issues of strong A.I. that is self-aware, you inevitably are talking about consciousness," Garland said. "And when you're talking about consciousness, you are talking about lies, jealousy, attraction, sexuality."
"The great science-fiction movies are human dramas also," Gleeson added. "They're not separate in my mind. Just because something is science fiction doesn't make it just spaceships. In my head, they tell you more about people than they do about machines."
Garland, Gleeson and Isaac were speaking while sitting together around a conference table in a room overlooking downtown Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. Introducing the film's North American premiere a few hours later, the festival's senior programmer, Jarod Neece, declared: "This might be one of the best films we've ever played at South by Southwest."
The film was shot in just six weeks on a budget of less than $15 million, with a healthy ratio of that going toward the visual effects needed to create Ava. Four weeks were spent at Britain's Pinewood Studios, the production leaving just ahead of the arrival of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," in which both Isaac and Gleeson will appear. The organic modernism and untouched nature of Nathan's estate were captured at a boutique hotel and private residence in Norway.
Garland, serious but friendly, is quick to highlight the collaborative nature of filmmaking with a team that included cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Mark Day, production designer Mark Digby, costumes by Sammy Sheldon Differ, visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and music by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow. (A startling, robust dance number occurs to Oliver Cheatham's 1983 R&B chestnut "Get Down Saturday Night.") His cast includes three enviable rising stars, as Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander will each be seen in numerous other films this year alone.
On making the transition to directing with his original script for "Ex Machina" — "I love this question," Garland dryly said before it was even fully asked, as Isaac and Gleeson both settled back in their chairs as if they knew they wouldn't be needed for a few moments — Garland provided a brief disclaimer to something he has now been asked about many times.
"The question presupposes a bunch of stuff that I just don't agree with," Garland said with quiet determination. "What it presupposes is stuff about the primacy of the director and the deification of the director and the importance of the director, and I just don't see films in that way. I see it as collaboration between a bunch of people. And I've worked on films before this one, and this is another one, and it was a continuum. It's not this big epiphany thing.
"I'm not saying auteurs don't exist, but I'm not an auteur. I'm not interested in being one; I'm interested in working with a group of people. So this was just another film."
Andrew Macdonald, producer on "Ex Machina" alongside DNA Films partner Allon Reich, worked on the adaptation of "The Beach" and still recalls the first time he read Garland's first screenplay for "28 Days Later." Having worked together numerous times since, Macdonald acknowledged that Garland's feelings are uniquely his own.
"In certain instances, he stood there and grimaced as other directors have taken more credit. He's counter-reacting to that," Macdonald said. "And he doesn't want to take that credit, but 'a film by' is justified with him, because he wrote it and directed it and created it all. But at the same time, it's true that it's collaboration. Even Stanley Kubrick had help."
Taken together, what Garland has put on screen as writer and now director creates a startling view of humanity and the ramifications of a tech-inflected culture. Though he doesn't shy away from the label "dystopian" — "That describes what it is" — he also doesn't see his body of work as some bleak end-times revelation or futurist prophecy.
"It's where I feel we're at more than where we're heading," Garland said. "Actually, for me, it's an uplifting film, 'Ex Machina,' for what it's worth. I'm on the side of the machines. I like the machines. I have problems with humans. Humans are doing some really bad stuff. I think it's actually reasonable to say that a sentient machine might be more reasonable than us about some things. I don't find that scary."