Ex Machina rocked our world with its story of artificial intelligence and messed-up dynamics. And its director, Alex Garland, is in line to direct the movie of Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed book Annihilation next. Is that really going to happen? How do you pull that off? We asked him.
Yesterday, we were lucky enough to talk to Garland on the phone, because the DVD/Blu-ray of Ex Machina comes out today. And Garland told us he’s “deep into” getting Annihilation set up. “That’s my day job at the moment,” he said.
Thinking about the practicalities
“Early on this week, I was on a location recce,” said Garland, using the British slang for “reconnaissance,” or “scouting.” “We’re getting to the point where you’re thinking about the practicalities. If we manage to get that going, it would be shooting in, I think, April of next year. So we’d go in to prep in January and shoot in April.”
But how can Garland possibly film the strange landscape of Area X? This is a transitional landscape, a lush wilderness full of strange creatures, like dolphins with human eyes. It’s been reshaped by some kind of alien influence, and a team of explorers sent by the organization known as the Southern Reach go in to investigate.
“What I’d say is, that I’ve worked on different kinds of adaptations in the past,” said Garland. “One of them was called Never Let Me Go, which was based on a book by Kazuo Ishiguro. Relatively speaking, what that film did was it kind of held up a mirror to the book. It was a slightly distorting mirror, in some respects, but basically it’s holding up a mirror—a sort of movie mirror, I guess.”
The movie of Annihilation, by contrast, “is not doing that. This is not tightly adhering to the beats of the novel in the same way,” said Garland. “It’s a looser adaptation,” although “the basic precepts” are still there. “Let me put it this way: If you saw the film, you’d know what it was based on. I can say that. But that’s presumptuous of me—if I get to make the film, and you saw the film, and you’d read the book, you’d say, ‘This is based on Annihilation.’ So it’s not that loose.” But it’s not as close a copy as Never Let Me Go was, he added.
A.I. will have an abusive childhood
Meanwhile, we also took the opportunity to talk to Garland—whom we also interviewed back in April—about the intense weirdness of Ex Machina. (Warning: Some spoilers for Ex Machina ahead.)
We asked Garland if this movie was intentionally about an abusive childhood, and the idea that we’ll raise A.I.s the same way we raise human children, abusively. “That’s a really complicated question, and it’s got a complicated answer,” said Garland.
“Basically—if I can go back a step—you might know that Ex Machina comes from a larger phrase, which was “deus ex machina,” and the deus bit of that is God. And this title drops ‘God’ out of it. And some of my thinking ran along the lines of this... We typically present creation stories as cautionary tales, saying ‘Man should not meddle in God’s work. And I wasn’t interested in the ‘God’ part of it. So hence taking ‘God’ out of the title.”
Adds Garland, “The relationship between Ava and Nathan, for me, was much more parental. There’s nothing, in itself, strange about creating a new consciousness, because that’s what happens routinely. All of us are the consequence of other people having created our consciousness. That’s how we get here. So the film is deliberately trying to take the ‘God’ out of it.”
The film contains all sorts of references, “some of them oblique, some of them very obvious, probably,” to Nathan’s role as a parent, rather than as a godlike creator. “For example, Ava turns around at one point and asks Nathan, ‘What’s it like to have made something that hates you?’ And in some respect, that’s like a kind of adolescence. That’s a subtext of a lot of arguments between adolescents and their parents.” And in fact, Nathan presents himself at various times to his visitor, Caleb, as being like Ava’s father.
“Without being willing to unravel and unpick it much, I was definitely thinking along parental lines, rather than ‘God’ lines,” said Garland. “And the mistakes that the humans make are, in effect, how they’re treating Ava. And they are, of course, mistreating Ava—I say ‘of course,’ because it was ‘of course’ from my point of view, but I know not everybody feels that way.”
Why does this movie depict artificial intelligence as coming out of a search engine? “I know that Google is working on A.I. in all sorts of different areas,” said Garland. “But I don’t have any insights or have any kind of information that search engines would directly lead to some breakthrough in A.I. It was more just that it feels that a lot of our anxiety about technology goes through how we feel about search engines, and the way that we feel that machines have a lot of information about us, and understand a lot about us, because of what we’ve told them. But we don’t understand much about about that.”
“It was more to do with that dynamic between humans and search engines, rather than search engines themselves leading to any actual breakthrough in A.I.,” adds Garland. So even though Ava, the movie’s A.I., is a prisoner and seems to be under the power of the humans, there’s actually a power dynamic that goes the other way—because she understands us so much better than we understand her.