In his novels The Beach and The Tesseract, in his screenplays Sunshine and 28 Days Later… and even his adaptations of other people's work, like Never Let Me Go and Dredd, Alex Garland wrestles with similarly knotty themes: The corruption of utopian ideals, the intersection where science and human behavior collide, the possibility that technology can go wrong, go rogue.
In his directing debut, the riveting sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, Garland bundles those concepts together to explore how consciousness and free will factor into the equation. A billionaire tech titan has developed a sentient machine and invites one of his brainy programmers to spend a week testing her – her name is Ava – to see if she represents true artificial intelligence, a thinking, feeling entity. Oscar Issac stars as the search engine era Dr. Frankenstein, Domhnall Gleeson is the young techie and Alicia Vikander, part Swedish actress, part prosthetics, part visual effects, is the robot creature.
“When Ava first appears, she’s very unambiguously a machine,” says Garland, who dropped into Philadelphia recently to talk up his film. “She’s got missing sections of her body, and a metal skeleton structure underneath, which precludes a possibility that she might be a girl wearing a suit…. But she has this mesh that sits over the metal structure that follows the contours of a female form. And every now and then the light captures that mesh and you get a glimpse of a female form. So even as soon as the machine is presented, something is pulling you away from that sense of a machine, which is the sense of a girl — at least the external silhouette, shape, of a girl.”
And that shape -- combined with Vikander’s face and voice and ballet-perfect movements – brings an element of sexuality into the picture.
“The sexbot thing is a bit of a red herring,” Garland notes, but the idea of sexuality as an integral part of our consciousness is definitely on point – a point Isaac’s character makes, convincingly, in Ex Machina. “Sexuality is a motivation, a reason to have interaction,” says Garland. “And the more complex the beings become, the more complex those interactions become, the more complex the sexuality becomes. So, it’s one thing with the birds and the bees and flowers and pollination, and it’s another with dogs, or with dolphins, and then it’s another thing with humans.”
So what does Garland see happening in the future? Is the sort of independent-thinking, emotionally attuned machine represented by Vikander in his movie going to happen in the real world?
“It’s impossible to know. It’s got a lot of parallels with the cure for cancer, in as much as there may be breakthroughs in AI and then what those breakthroughs do is they demonstrate how hard the job is -- and the goalposts shift away from where they were perceived to be previously.
“That said, do I think there will be AIs one day that are strong AIs and that have sentience? If I had to bet, I’d bet yes, just in the way that I would bet that there will be a cure for cancer despite all the complexities of cancer.… I could be wrong....But one of the pleasures of working on this film is that I’ve got to meet some people who are involved at a very high level of current AI research, and you pretty much get the same message from all of them, which is that it will happen, but it’s not about to happen. It’s not imminent. We’re really not talking about 5 years. We may not be talking about 20 years…. You may well be talking about 200 years, and then again you may be talking about never.”