Interview: Alex Garland, Director Of 'Ex Machina' "The anxiety in this film is much more directed at the humans," director Alex Garland tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "It was more in defense of artificial intelligence."

More Fear Of Human Intelligence Than Artificial Intelligence In 'Ex Machina'

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Many of us have lived with smartphones long enough to know there are some limits to artificial intelligence. For instance, if I turn on this iPhone and ask Apple's Siri - Siri, are you human?

SIRI: Sorry, I've been advised not to discuss my existential status.

CORNISH: OK. But a new film called "Ex Machina" imagines a world where a genius tech billionaire has invented something far more advanced. In this movie, this inventor named Nathan invites a young man to his research compound to essentially answer the same question I just asked Siri, only using what's called a Turing test.


DOMHNALL GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) It's when a human interacts with a computer, and if the human doesn't know they're interacting with a computer, the test is passed.

OSCAR ISAAC: (As Nathan Bateman) And what does a pass tell us?

GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) That the computer has artificial intelligence. Are you building an AI?

ISAAC: (As Nathan Bateman) I've already built one, and over the next few days, you're going to be the human component in a Turing test.

CORNISH: Director Alex Garland has tackled the zombie apocalypse as the writer behind the 2002 film "28 Days Later." In "Ex Machina," his first film as director, he introduces us to Ava, a creation that is part woman and part machine. And unlike many android films, there is no hiding that fact.

ALEX GARLAND: In this test, it's different because the machine is presented clearly as a machine. There's no attempt to hide that it might be a machine, and it's really just a test to see if the machine has sentience or a humanlike consciousness.

CORNISH: And I want to actually play a little bit from the film. This is the moment when Caleb the human subject meets Ava.



GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) Hi. I'm Caleb.

VIKANDER: (As Ava) Hello, Caleb.

GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) Do you have a name?

VIKANDER: (As Ava) Yes - Ava.

GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) I'm pleased to meet you, Ava.

CORNISH: Alex Garland, the music we heard at the top, that tingling romantic (laughter) music - I don't know - it seems like he's about to fall in love with her. In another film, this is a love scene.

GARLAND: Good. I'm glad. That was certainly one of the intentions of the bit of music, and the other is that it has a slightly nursery type feeling about it, those chimes, which is intended to present Ava the machine as having a kind of innocence, a sort of undamaged, untarnished quality. So there's a bunch of things that are sort of there to support her in terms of the sound design and the music to present her character as much as anything.

CORNISH: Right, and you can hear a very light, kind of mechanical sound, and I want you to talk about the design of this figure. For people who - out there who might be listening and thinking of "Blade Runner," this isn't the kind of situation where her machinery is hidden, right? And so she has, like, a human face, and then her torso you almost see through to, I guess, like, a mechanical spine.

GARLAND: Yeah, that's right. The trick of the film, the way the film intends to work is to present something which is unambiguously a machine and then gradually remove your sense of Ava being a machine even while you continue to see her being that way. And the sound design is a key part of that. You could hear in that the sounds of bits of machinery moving, which aren't specified. They're not quite gears and cogs and pistons. They're something slightly odder than that. And there's also this pulse, which is not dissimilar in some respects to a heartbeat, although it isn't a heartbeat. So the first time she appears, there's no doubt about her machine status. Large parts of her body are transparent and you can see through them. They're all designed to give a sense of life, but a sense of life which is other in some way.

CORNISH: I want to play a clip of the actor Oscar Isaac playing Nathan. Nathan is this tech billionaire, the inventor behind all of this. Some might describe him as what I've heard as a tech bro. Here's the clip of he and Caleb meeting for the first time.


ISAAC: (As Nathan Bateman) You're freaked out. You're freaked out in meeting me and having this conversation in this room at this moment, right? But can we just get past that, the whole employer-employee thing?

GLEESON: (As Caleb Smith) It's good to meet you, Nathan.

ISAAC: (As Nathan Bateman) It's good to meet you too, Caleb.

CORNISH: He's arrogant in a very specific way that we don't see very often, right, 'cause we're only just now seeing these depictions of the tech CEO. Talk about this figure, not just Nathan, but the idea of this person who kind of thinks they're a little bit godlike.

GARLAND: He is arrogant, and he's arrogant essentially by virtue of the fact that he's incredibly intelligent and powerful. And in that world you do encounter people like that.

CORNISH: But it felt like the end of the era of depicting this kind of person as nerdy, right? Like, a kind of geek villain or something. Like, he's buff, he's working out, he's sort of overtly sexual all the time.

GARLAND: He is, he is, but he's also playing a kind of meta-game the whole time, which is that you don't know intentionally about are you seeing what this guy is actually like? Or are you seeing a presentation that he is giving of himself in a knowing way to this employee in order to present himself as predatory, misogynistic, physically intimidating, threatening? But it is actually something that is embedded within him.

CORNISH: This kind of story that you're talking about, a kind of artificial intelligence story or a kind of what does it mean to be human story - we see them every generation, right? And they...

GARLAND: Yeah, or more than every generation, yeah.

CORNISH: Exactly, I mean, they're very common. So they tap into a different fear for that generation. How did you stumble down this rabbit hole?

GARLAND: Well, I just got very interested in the area of artificial intelligence and, in particular, how it relates to human consciousness. And I could see that there was a lot of anxiety floating around about AIs, and I wanted to address it partly because I thought it was misplaced. It's got more to do with big tech companies and the Internet and search engines and social media and that kind of thing. I think there's a sense in which we feel that we don't understand how our cellphones and our laptops work and our computers. But those things seem to understand a lot about us. Now, that's not really about artificial intelligence. It's about tech paranoia.

CORNISH: Yes, I noticed that, in part, some of the technology in the film, in terms of how the artificial intelligence or the robots are thinking, comes from the data from search engines, right?


CORNISH: This imaginary, Google-like search engine that this tech billionaire basically hacks and steals the information from just to figure out how people think, not what they think, but the act of thinking.

GARLAND: Yeah. I suppose there was an idea that the - if you were to look at a lot of search engine inputs from an individual, or just as a sort of mass of data from a large group of people, you'd see some of the strange patterns in the way that we think with things that are sort of semi non sequiturs. But I think the other thing I was interested in is the way tech companies present themselves. So Oscar Isaac's character Nathan talks in this very kind of familiar, pal-y way. He uses the word dude and bro a lot, and I felt that this was sometimes how tech companies present themselves to us. They're kind of like our friends. They say hey, pal, hey, dude. Like, we're kind of mates, you know? I'm not really a big tech company. I'm actually your friend and we're hanging out sort of at a bar or at the beach, and we're sort of part of each other's lifestyle. But at the same time, I'm going to take a lot of money off you and I'm going to take all of your data and rifle through your address book and...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

GARLAND: And that kind of thing, you know?

CORNISH: Well, Alex Garland, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing some of the ideas behind the film.

GARLAND: Oh, my pleasure, thank you.

CORNISH: Alex Garland - he's the director of "Ex Machina."

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