You've probably seen some pretty sexy robotic imagery from Ex Machina — and yet, it's kind of weird and off-putting as well. The new film from 28 Days Later and Dredd writer Alex Garland, takes the "sexualized robot" archetype and makes it weirder. We talked to Garland about why his robot is both sexy and disturbing.
Top image: Ex Machina concept art by Karl Simon.
We were lucky enough to take part in a roundtable interview with Garland, along with a couple other outlets, a few weeks ago. Here's what he told us, in response to our questions as well as those of our colleagues.
A lot of the most sexualized scenes in this movie are also the ones which draw our attention to the fact that Ava is a machine — like when she's putting on sexy clothing over her artificial limbs. Why do you foreground that juxtaposition between sexiness and heightened awareness of artificiality?
I'm trying to have a conversation, partly, about where gender resides. Is it in a mind, or is it in a physical form? Is there such a thing, therefore, as a male or female consciousness? Or actually, is that a meaningless distinction, and gender resides in the external physical form? Or maybe in neither? And there's a sort of broader question about what do you even call this creature? Do you say "he," "she" or "it"?
It would be quite easy to present an argument that said, "Ava has no gender." You could do that. It would be quite easy to present that as a case. That said, calling her "he" just feels wrong. The way Ava looks, to use the word "he" seems inappropriate. And to use the word "it" feels disrespectful. And so, you end up with "she," and then you end up with this strange thing of, "Is she a 'she'? I'm feeling like I should call her a 'she', but is she a 'she'?"
And just to be clear, of the questions that are posed by the film, some of them don't have answers — but that doesn't mean that posing the question is wrong. Sometimes it's actually good to pose questions that you know don't have answers.
When it comes to sexuality, there's a different thing going on. Essentially, what it's about is, the fetishization of girls in their early 20s. Now, that's not really about gender — it's a completely separate issue.
Basically what you have is both a protagonist — a seeming protagonist — and the audience being tasked with [a question], which is, 'Tell us what is going on inside the mind of this being, whatever this being is. Tell us what is going on inside this being's head. Specifically, what is it thinking?' And then a whole bunch of obstacles are presented to both the protagonist and the audience, which effectively get in the way of asking the question, 'What is Ava thinking?'
[So this movie is about] the way we are prevented by the things you are talking about [like gender and sexuality]. They stand in the way of asking the question, 'What is going on inside that thing's head?' So now that, of course, happens in this film in the context of this machine. But it happens more broadly in society in other ways. So there's a commentary or a discussion going on — and as I said, it's posing a question, without necessarily providing answers.
I could actually go on, because I spent fucking ages trying to figure this shit out. And you know, the crucial thing is, if you're going to try to do this, the key — at least as far as I can tell — is to try and do it thoughtfully.
It feels as though you're exploring the sexuality of the Uncanny Valley. Is that intentional?
The Uncanny Valley in this movie is — for me, at any rate — something that is exhibited within Ava, specifically, in her movements. The way Ava moves is not robotic. It's like a too-perfect version of how humans move. And in the perfection of those movements, to me, it feels a bit other. It's quite hard to say why it's other, it just feels a bit "off." It just feels a bit wrong.
That was an idea that Alicia Vikander, who was the actress, arrived with. [She said], "I've got an idea about how to play Ava." She was a ballerina from age 11. She's got incredible control over her physicality. She did that job at a very, very high level within Sweden.
As soon as she said that, I thought, "That is absolutely brilliant."
Besides Alicia and her movements, how did you use visual effects to convince people that this girl is actually a synthetic being?
The effects are really brilliant, and they were run by this guy called Andrew Whitehurst... He has enormous creative, poetic instincts. Like I remember him saying early on, "I just want to hang these fake plastic strips inside her, in her torso, which will diffuse light, and just make these structures inside her more mysterious." Of course they're virtual plastic strips, but they have an aesthetic effect. And it was a really subtle, nuanced idea he had.
People's fears about artificial intelligence are one reason there's so much interest in this movie. But you think it'll be good, right? You think it'll be an improvement.
I do. And I also think that a lot of the stuff that's perceived to be anxiety about artificial intelligence has actually got fuck-all to do with A.I.
Like, there's two separate things going on. You've got Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, saying "Artificial intelligence is potentially very dangerous." And maybe being kind of anti-A.I., potentially. (And when I'm talking about A.I., I'm talking about strong A.I. I'm not talking about mobile phones or video games.) And it's like, "That's potentially true. It's potentially reasonable, but you could also say the same thing about nuclear power — it's potentially dangerous, but it doesn't necessarily stop us using it." The question is how it's used.
And more to the point, with humans, it tends to be the case that when something is possible, we then do it. So the question to ask, therefore, is not "should we do it, or shouldn't we do it?" Becuase we're going to do it, if it's possible. It's more, "How do you deal with it when it happens?" That's, I suspect, the more reasonable question.
That aside, I think a lot of the anxiety doesn't actually come from A.I. There's been a lot of stories about A.I. recently in film, like Her, or Transcendence, or Automata, or this... and then there's going to be Age of Ultron. This suggests it's in the zeitgest. It's in the air a bit.
Why is that? Has there been any big breakthrough in A.I.? Not really. People are continuing to work on it, like they're continuing to work on a cure for cancer, but nothing really big's happened. So why is that? And I think it's got nothing to do with A.I., I think it's got to do with tech companies, and I think it's because of our laptops and our computers and our phones — we don't really understand these things, but we feel they know a lot about us. And actually, we're right: They do know a lot about us, and we don't understand them.
So what you get is either consciously or unconsciously, a sense of anxiety. And I think these A.I. stories are a consequence of that anxiety, rather than anything specifically tailored to A.I.
Oscar Isaac's character seems very deliberately manipulative, for example in the way he keeps misquoting Domnhall Gleeson back to him. Is that your commentary on the sort of mind that would create A.I.?
No, not exactly. It's kind of more... there's two things that's going on there. One is, he is deliberately winding this other guy up. He's presenting himself as something from which this machine needs to be rescued. He's presenting himself as a bullying, misogynistic, predatory, violent man, [so that] this kid needs to rescue this machine from him. Now there's a question, which is, 'Is that a complete confection?' Is that an act that he's doing within the film? Or is he actually amplifying something which is inside his own character? So that's going on there. And that's one of the hovering questions within the story.
But there's another thing that he's doing, which is all this "dudebro" stuff. And what all that is for me is, it's slightly trying to represent the way that some big tech companies present themselves. Which is kind of going, "Hey dude, hey bro. We're all sort of pals. I'm not really a big tech company. I know I look like a big tech company. But we're mates. And we're all a bunch of hipsters, listenining to music. By the way, can you give me all your money and all your information? Thanks, dude." So it's like that. So that sort of "dudebro" speak kind of cracked me up a bit. And I suppose I was having fun with it, but there was a serious intent somewhere in there as well.
Oscar Isaac does a lot with just his face, and really small mannerisms with his body as well, that convey a lot to the viewer without giving too much away. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
It's not on my part. This relates to the Alicia question before. It's one of the things people say: "This director got this performance out of this actor." Certainly, I didn't get any performances out of any actors. This was something Oscar brought because he's an incredibly gifted actor, and what I think you seek from an actor is that they will elevate everything to do with their character, and find things that you'd never even thought of, and improvements, and stuff like that.
So does that suggest that you like to give your actors free rein on the set, or do you like to have some kind of collaboration and try to find a middle ground?
I perceive myself as being a writer, primarily. So I write the script, and I present it as a blueprint, and offer it up to people, and say, "Do you want to collaborate on this film?" And then, I'm not looking to control anybody. It's almost like what you'd ideally want anarchy to be. A group of people, quite autonomous, but also collaborative, working together, with a shared goal. And that's my approach to film-making, broadly. I don't like "auteur" theory — I find it boring and misleading and inaccurate, a lot of the time.
Years ago, I used to work in books. You sit in a room, on your own. You write a book. That's "auteur." And there's no real comparison between working on a film, with a whole bunch of people, and that. So actually the thing I dig about film is that it's collaborative. That's the pleasure in it.
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