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INTERVIEW: Director Alex Garland on Ex Machina

04/10/2015 02:26 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015
Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

Alex Garland's haunting and thought-provoking science-fiction film Ex Machina hits theaters today, and it excels at the kind of "small scale, big ideas" cinema that we get far too little of these days. Starring Oscar Isaac as an eccentric billionaire genius who invents a human-like artificial intelligence called Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Domhnall Gleeson as the worker who's recruited to test the limits of this creation, the film is clearly a passion project for Garland.

Making his directing debut after crafting some of the most memorable screenplays of the last few years, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and one of my favorite underrated flicks, 2012's Dredd, I had the opportunity to chat with the soft-spoken and introspective Garland during his recent swing through the Bay Area. In addition to the philosophical underpinnings of Ex Machina and why we shouldn't fear AI, we also discussed his love of science-fiction, where 28 Days Later came from, and why Dredd will likely never have a sequel. Read on for highlights from our chat:

Starting things off, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that AI is bad news, that we need to be afraid. I'd love to get your take on their take.

Well, I don't want to comment on their take because the thing is that quotes get de-contextualized, and the sound bite of Hawking's is part of a bigger, more complex argument, and what happens is I'd inevitably misrepresent his position by talking about the sound bite. But what I can say is that in my opinion A.I.s are desirable. When I talk about AIs, I'm not talking about the AIs in video games and mobile phones; I'm talking about the idea of a strong AI, a self-aware AI.

Consciousness.

Essentially. Consciousness, yes. A machine with consciousness, let's say. I think it's completely desirable and fascinating. That doesn't mean it's not dangerous, it's not without hazards. That's why in this movie there's a lot of parallels drawn between the CEO and inventor of Ava and Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb and nuclear power projects and stuff. Of course, nuclear power has massive inherent dangers. It could destroy the world, but it also has huge benefits, and I'm one of those green types that's actually kind of into nuclear power because it's, to my mind, better than fossil fuel power stations and so on.

So, I see AI as being similar to that. There are potential dangers but there are huge potential benefits, and more to the point, if something is possible, it then tends to happen. So, someone somewhere, if it is possible to create a sentient machine, will do it, in which case the question is not trying to talk about whether it should happen or shouldn't happen but more: how do you deal with it when it does happen? That's a much more pertinent question because if it can happen, it will, and no amount of hand wringing is going to stop it.

So, I guess I'd frame the whole thing like that, and if you were going to then say: what's so good about AI? I'd say two things. One is, I suspect, about some things, they'll be smarter and more reasonable than we are, and we may not instinctively like that idea, but we just need to get over ourselves. It's like, that's okay, for them to be smarter and more reasonable than us about some stuff. There's a whole bunch of crazy shit happening all over the world. There always is, at any point in human history, and AIs might not do that kind of stuff as badly as we do.

The other thing I kind of like about them is that they feel like a sort of evolutionary progression from us because we would've created them in much the same way that we create children and propagate our species, and they would have a life, and the life might be longer than ours and able to survive in different environments than we can survive in. And so, whereas I would say our long-term future as a species is to die on this rock -- that's where we're headed -- that may not be true of an AI.

The huge distances involved and the power problems, the energy problems involved in crossing massive, massive distances of interstellar space that are pretty much an insurmountable obstacle for us might not be an insurmountable obstacle for them, and so some part of us might survive through them, and a meaningful part of us, a part of us where almost something that is analogous to genetic life -- it's not a genetic life, but analogous to -- might continue.

Picking up on what you were saying, I feel like we're in the midst of, at least cinematically, a renewed period of analysis on this issue.

Well, for sure. There's a ton of AI movies, in other words, and we're kind of late to the party.

Well, I think you've staked out kind of a unique position, though, because we're a month away from The Avengers, which is going to be tackling that question from a blockbuster perspective.

Ultron, right.

And then, there was Transcendence last year, and there's Chappie in theaters right now, and I think it's interesting to sort of look at a continuum and see something like HAL in 2001 -- and if you want to go even further back, Frankenstein - and then carry it forward to where we are now. It feels to me like this notion of our creation supplanting us or surpassing us speaks to something fundamental. What is it about this idea that keeps us going back to it again and again?

I think we can't help it just because we're obsessed with our own destruction. Embedded within everything you said, what it all comes down to, I think, is a sense of one's own mortality, you know? I think my approach to this was -- and in a way perhaps this is slightly different to the Frankenstein starting point, although all these things owe a debt to Frankenstein -- was to not kind of involve God in it, I guess. I mean, there's a gag about God within it where one of the characters compares himself to God, but he's doing it to wind up the other guy.

He knows what he's doing. He's kind of winding him up. And really, to present it not as an act of...the thing is, when God's involved, it becomes a cautionary tale about man not getting above his station, man not trying to get involved in the work of God and therefore getting his fingers burned. And I'm not too fussed about that, partly because I don't actually think that the act of creating a new consciousness is a godlike act. It's actually a parental act. Everyone on the planet does this, or at least, they may not do it but they are the result of two other people having done it prior, and simply creating a new consciousness is, in that respect, is a human-level concern. It's not a deity-level concern.

So, this isn't, "Oh, you're tampering in things man wasn't meant to know!"

No, it's really, really not. I mean, not in any way, shape, or form.

So, in the context of this, and when I look at the work that you've done, you've tackled the end of the world by way of...

Oh, you mean zombies. (laughs)

Well, would you call them zombies in 28 Days Later?

Yeah, I would, in as much that when I first sat down to pitch that movie, before I wrote the script, which was to Andrew Macdonald, the producer, we were sitting in a pizza place in a street in London called Charlotte Street, and I said, "Look, I've got an idea for a film. It's about running zombies and it's got daylight and it's in London."

It was London, daylight, running zombies, was the thing. He said, "Oh, sounds really cool." And then I went off and did it as a spec script. The reason I say zombies is partly because I don't give a f*** about the sort of technical differences between the infected and the dead and whether they're reanimated corpses or not. The lineage that the film belongs to is zombie movies.

The Romero tropes and all that.

Yeah, completely. It was because I'd seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead on my neighbor's VCR when I was 13 years old, and I thought, wow! That's where it comes from, and actually, to be -- in fact, I say that's where it comes from; it's partially where it comes from. It also came -- because, I don't know, probably a year or two before I wrote 28 Days, Resident Evil got released. Sometimes 28 Days Later is credited with reviving the zombie genre in some respect, but actually, I think it was Resident Evil that did it because I remember playing Resident Evil, having not really encountered zombies for quite a while, and thinking: oh, my god, I love zombies! I'd forgotten how much I love zombies. These are awesome!

And it's funny how the remake of Dawn of the Dead was clearly influenced by 28 Days, so kind of full circle.

It was hilarious. That really tickled me.

And it says something that 28 Days Later sparked sort of the zombie craze that's there right now. Is this something that appeals to you? It's almost like we can look at sci-fi, and I'm simplifying it greatly, but there's sort of the Star Trek view of sci-fi and there's the Planet of the Apes view of sci-fi.

Oh, go on. What's the difference?

In that you have sort of the idea of mankind bands together and we overcome our difficulties or Chuck Heston gets chased through a cornfield

Right. That's interesting. See, I'd have bracketed them as the same kind of sci-fi.

Oh, explain that.

Well, because I think there's some kinds of sci-fi that is basically opera or action and adrenaline, and I think you could probably...well, there's lots of sci-fi you can include in that. Say, Star Wars, I think you could include in that, and there's other sci-fi, which underneath it is basically running on ideas. It's main fuel is ideas, and I would say that Planet of the Apes and Star Trek are actually ideas-governed, and there'll be an allegory in there or some point about the nature of society or man or...

Racism.

Racism or class systems or whatever it happens to be. So, those two, I'd put together, I guess.

And what draws you back to the genre again and again?

The thing we just spoke about. Because sci-fi allows really, really big subject matter without having to feel embarrassed about it, and a lot of other genres -- including, by the way, straight adult drama -- is sometimes really embarrassed of big ideas. Straight adult drama can sometimes be the most embarrassed of all, and it sort of restricts itself sometimes to human relationships, adult relationships, and the nature of divorce or there's sort of a nuance of mortality or whatever, infidelity, whatever it happens to be, and the idea of making a sort of adult drama about consciousness or something like that would be almost gauche. And sci-fi just says, do whatever you want. The bigger the idea, the better. Bring it on.

I need to ask you about Dredd. This is a movie that I love dearly, and I was absolutely crushed when people did not go to see this movie.

And they really did not go to see it, in a spectacular way. It was like the polar opposite of box office smash.

What drew you to trying to get that movie made?

It was actually, while we were working on Sunshine, Andrew Macdonald came up to me and said, "I think I can get hold of the rights to Dredd," and I said, "I'm in, don't mention it to anybody else."

And I'm sure you hear from people all the time who just loved that movie.

Yeah, I do, and it's really gratifying because when you work on something and it totally bombs, it's kind of crushing. So, it's nice when people dig it, and that's really cool. The only issue I have in retrospect with Dredd now, I guess, is I sometimes feel a sense of sort of failed responsibility. In some respects, when you take on a license, there's a duty of care to the thing that you're adapting, and what you don't want to do is kind of spoil the thing that you're adapting for people.

A failed franchise makes it very, very hard. It makes it sort of more difficult for the thing, maybe, than it was before. It's like the last thing you want if you love the thing that you're adapting, the last thing you want to do is damage it. So, it's partly that it's difficult, and partly also, I feel very uncomfortable sometimes with the way that I feel fans have got slightly manipulated in campaigns and stuff. I've never tried to encourage that. I've never said anything publicly to encourage that. I particular feel uncomfortable that people are doing things like buying DVDs to boost up the thing.

I want to say keep your money because the way film studios think is much colder and harder than will be affected by this piece of logic. They need to generate amounts of money that this will not impact, and that money is better off in your pocket. But because I don't have any kind of existence in a public forum -- I'm not on Twitter or anything like this -- and so, if I'm not out trying to sell a movie, I'm silent, essentially. I haven't been able to participate in this debate. I don't want it to sound like me or anybody who works on the film isn't incredibly grateful for the support the film gets. It's really, profoundly gratifying, but I also want to be fair to those people.

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Many thanks for Alex Garland for being so generous with his time. Ex Machina is now playing at select theaters. To hear the audio from this conversation, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: