- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our best science fiction is about ideas rather than laser beams and explosions. “Ex Machina,” which opens Friday in the District, is an examplar — an intelligent sci-fi mystery that explores the notions of consciousness, sentience and whether “artificial” intelligence is, in fact, real.

“Ex Machina” marks the directorial debut of British screenwriter/novelist Alex Garland, whose script mines not only the themes explored by forbearers Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and others, but also the ancient stories infused in the human genome.

“Indeed, you can predate sci-fi. You can go to any kind of creation myth or Frankenstein or whatever it happens to be,” Mr. Garland told The Washington Times. “Those myths influence all of us because they are the stories we tell each other in order to figure out what we think about certain things. And influences can be quite oblique.”

The psychological thriller opens with young computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) escorted to the compound of his tech company’s reclusive founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has been constructing human-looking artificial intelligence (AI) prototypes. Caleb‘s job will be to interact with the latest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she is sentient or merely simulating consciousness.

“The thing about sci-fi is that it’s completely unembarrassed about having big ideas embedded within it,” Mr. Garland said. “Even non-genre adult drama gets slightly embarrassed by big ideas. If there’s overt philosophical ideas, people worry about it being too pretentious. But sci-if somehow just gives you permission. And sci-fi audiences kind of welcome big ideas and embrace them.”

“Ex Machina” abounds with dialectic between Caleb and Nathan, as well as Caleb and Ava. But the computer programmers’ sometimes alcohol-fueled, “dude”-infused conversations on the theory of mind and solipsism are made accessible for laymen, as Nathan exhorts his employee to talk less about theory and more about practice.

“The trick is to avoid dialogue that feels like exposition — that the characters are only saying things that those characters would say,” the screenwriter said. “And in this particular film, you’ve got two coders, both of whom have an interest in artificial intelligence, so they are committed then to talking about that in a sort of reasonably high-level way without it feeling inappropriate. And then the trick is to add naturalism.”

Amid their philosophizing, the two men drop references to “Ghostbusters,” which is what such characters would do in real life, Mr. Garland maintains, “because these two guys, if they were in the room with you, these are the terms in which they might talk.”

But the heart of the story is Caleb in conversation with Ava in Nathan’s compound. Kept in a glass enclosure, she interacts with Caleb through a partition, asking him questions and answering his own. Her programming includes a sexuality component, and gradually Caleb becomes attracted to the “person” in the machine.

What is gender? Is it learned or innate? Is Ava female, even if she is a simulation of femininity?

Answers to such questions are ultimately “unknowable,” Mr. Garland said, adding that the search for answers impelled him to write the script.

“Because it’s an ideas movie, I think [it asks the audience] are these things worth thinking about?” he said. “Where does gender reside? Is in the mind, is it in the body, is it in the way that people react to the body? Is it conferred upon someone else? What is self-awareness?”

Mr. Garland has taken a circuitous route to the director’s chair. He first entered the public consciousness with his 1996 novel “The Beach,” which was adapted by Scottish director Danny Boyle into the 2000 film of the same, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. As it was Mr. DiCaprio’s first major post-“Titanic” role, and his character was decidedly morally ambiguous, both the film and Mr. DiCaprio received a hearty backlash, which Mr. Garland said he “totally saw coming.”

His first attempt at screenwriting was the 2003 zombie apocalypse film “28 Days Later,” directed by Mr. Boyle. The movie reimagined zombies as fast-moving rage-aholics, not the shambling monsters of George A. Romero’s ilk.

“It had a particular element too — a subversive quality, a kind of aggression,” Mr. Garland said of “28 Days Later.” “It had a sensibility that if you were British maybe, and you were born in 1970 — as I was — you sort of would identify as ‘punk,’ essentially in a kind of aesthetic sense.”

It spawned a sequel, “28 Weeks Later,” which Mr. Garland did not write, and a third film is being discussed. Indeed, he described the notion of a franchise as “the opposite of punk,” aimed at capitalizing on a brand without respect for the sensibilities and aesthetic of the original.

With several other screenplays and two other novels to his credit, it might seem natural that Mr. Garland would step behind the camera for one of his own scripts. But he rejects the “auteur theory” of directing as not only outdated but also misnamed.

“The notion I had of directing just started to completely fall apart,” he said, “and partly because directors are sort of humanized instead of deified, which is what happens when you’re right next to someone.”

His up-close and personal view of filmmaking informed him of the hundreds of craftsmen beyond the director who contribute to a movie’s quality, deepening his respect for and appreciation of all who worked with him on “Ex Machina.”

“I could see [and] believe what I could see — a group of people working together, of which the director was undoubtedly a very, very important part,” Mr. Garland said. “And so was the [director of photography] and the producers and actors and so on. And that just cannonballed straight through” his dismissal of the director-as-author theory, popularized by French New Wave directors of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Having come to prominence as a novelist, Mr. Garland says he now prefers the collaborative world of filmmaking over the solitary pursuit of writing a book, which he describes as “fundamentally just sitting around for two years.”

Asked if “Ex Machina” is cynical, Mr. Garland said it is “suspicious” of humanity and big tech companies, such as Nathan’s, which mines information on people around the world.

“But it also is sort of optimistic as well,” he said, “and also, I hope, sort of slightly reassuring. Because it’s not against AIs, it’s not against technology, it’s not even necessarily against humans or big tech companies. But it is [saying] there are areas of danger.”

“Ex Machina” will haunt viewers long after leaving the theater, as it invites audiences to mentally replay the complex chess game between Nathan, Caleb and Ava.

“The thing about being outsmarted is you don’t know it’s happening when it’s happening,” Mr. Garland said.

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