On its most evident level, the film Ex Machina is about escaping a glass box.
But packed inside that transparent prison, alongside the stunning, perhaps living, thinking technology of an android wanting to free itself, is a wellspring of important ideas and questions.
While Ex Machina may allure with almost distracting special effects, it captivates with its questions about the human consciousness and sexuality; about freedom of thought and the loss of privacy.
It is, as first-time-director Alex Garland (writer of novel The Beach, movie 28 Days Later and game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), told me after a screening last month in Austin, a Swiss watch story, a film about ideas carefully constructed to provoke the viewer to thought, but maybe not answers.
"This is supposed to be a movie about ideas," he said. "We talk about this stuff a lot. We test it on each other constantly. It's there to provoke a conversation."
Ex Machina, which hits theaters today in the U.S., opens on a compelling scenario: A programmer winning a week's vacation with his reclusive genius boss Nathan, the CEO of an all-powerful tech company (a sort of melding of Facebook, Apple and Google), at his remote home in the middle of massive forests and verdant mountains.
Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) quickly discovers that the real reason for the trip is to allow him to examine Nathan's (Oscar Isaac: All About the Benjamins, The Force Awakens) next big thing: An artificial intelligence built into a female android named Ava (Alicia Vikander: Pure, Anna Karenina). His chief role, he's told, is to perform a Turing Test on Ava, who is kept locked inside a glass room, to determine if she can pass for human. The only other noteworthy person in the movie is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan's personal assistant.
The film has just four actors in it, but Nathan's home provides such an intriguing setting for the movie that it becomes an important character of its own in the story.
The decision to use the single, almost claustrophobic setting was in part driven by pragmatism, Garland said.
"We were in many respects a low-budget film," he said. "We were a $15 million movie, but effectively less, because a huge chunk of that was the VFX budget. You have a very simple problem, which is, how does a low-budget film present the house of a guy who has more money than anybody else in the universe? We hunted around and it was old-fashioned filmmaking stuff. We found this very beautiful place in Norway. Norway is a country that's incredibly affluent, because they were so smart. They nationalized their oil industry and were sensible with the way they exploited it, so they're like a tech company, super rich. You get these beautiful architectural things. It was actually a hotel and a house. We used that as the location. Stunning landscape just outside."
While much of the film's budget was used to create the amazing effects that turn Vikander into a believable automaton, the movie isn't distracted by the aesthetics of that technology. Instead, Ex Machina is a tightly woven psychological thriller that finds its movement through smartly crafted conversation and the escalating battle of wills between Caleb and Nathan.
It is through these conversations and day-to-day interactions that we see the tension build and provoking questions begin to pop up.
Ultimately, Ex Machina is a movie that leaves you thinking long after the credits roll. It stays with you, offering the sort of eudaemonic gratification that some believe only movies and books can deliver.
Ex Machina as a story is notable in a number of ways, maybe least of which is its treatment of the potential realities of a future AI. In creating the story of Ava, Garland deliberately ignored something long included in many such films: Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. According to the laws, a robot may not hurt a human, must obey orders and must protect itself without conflicting with the first two laws.
"I completely ignored them," Garland said. "It's not like a law, an actual law. It's a self-declared law. Why should one observe it? It may or may not be observed. It's just a sort of suggestion. I don't feel obliged by the court of sci-fi to do whatever Asimov thought was the right thing to do. I don't think he would have expected that either, because he was a writer, a fiction writer."
And in ignoring those rules, Garland was able to write a much more meaningful story. Nathan is a reclusive, flawed genius who believes he has essentially created life and wants to probe everything about that with the help of Caleb. Ava, free of those Three Laws, has the ability to be a more complex character with, perhaps, her own notions.
Quickly in the story, the trope of sexy fembot is brought into the discussion between the two men and then smartly picked apart. The conversation, and its thread throughout the story, quickly get past the obvious to dive deeply into notions of gender identity, using the mask of science fiction to provoke meaningful discussion and thought on the topic.
At one point the two discuss the possibility that an AI would have a sexless consciousness, but then walk away from it.
Garland says the ultimate failures of the humans in the story weren't meant to be about their own views of sexuality.
"Partly it was just about the failure of these people to think about what the machine is thinking and instead to get involved in their own prejudices and narratives," Garland said. "They don't think about the thing that's right in front of them and the task at hand, in a strange kind of way ... "
This discussion of gender identity and sexuality becomes one of the interesting topics delved into by the film.
"Where does gender reside?"
"The sexless or genderless thing is more of a question than a statement," Garland said. "It was more like, where does gender reside? Is it in the mind? Is there such a thing as a male mind or a female mind? Is that a reasonable thing to say? If it is in the mind, then Ava could actually have a gender. That's then conceivable. But then also, if it is true, it feels to me like you have to then say, what would the differences be? What would a male consciousness have that's different from a female consciousness? What happens when a male consciousness is actually acting like a female consciousness? It feels like it falls apart to me as an idea. So then the converse thing is, if the mind doesn't have a gender — it's actually genderless — and the external form is what denotes gender, then by some terms she is actually female, because she has a consciousness as a male or female could have, but the outside form denotes a gender of sorts.
"Is it in the mind?"
"The thing is, that gets confused potentially with her behavior, which is genderless. She is just acting as she has to act in order to do what she needs to do, which is to get out of a glass box. In some respects I know I haven't been clear with the position the film is taking in regards to this stuff, but that's also deliberate."
Oscar Isaac, who plays the genius Nathan, points out that the film also introduces the notion of sexuality being used as a tool or as a weapon or a means to an end.
It's an important point, because in the film we're never really told what's going on inside Ava's mind, and that was deliberate Garland said.
"The thing I want to specify is, does she have a mind?" he said. "That's the key question. It's not what is actually motivating her. One of the things about AI, which you could also say about people, is that they may not be like us. They could have all sorts of qualities, human-like qualities, but still not be like us. The only thing I know about Ava is that she has an internal life."
He knows that, and shows that, in a scene where she is alone in her room and smiles at a piece of music playing.
"But that's as far as I get."
Music plays an important role in Ex Machina, not just in establishing or questioning the identity of Ava, but in setting tone and maintaining a sense of unease.
To craft the music, Garland went to Geoff Barrow of Portishead and well known nature documentary composer Ben Salisbury. The two worked with Garland on the movie Dredd, but ultimately the soundtrack didn't work out.
"But I loved working with him and those people, frankly," Garland said. "The thing about them, and it's an incredible asset, is that they're not steeped in film grammar. They're not film composers who've been doing this for a long time and they've had their hearts broken because they wrote some brilliant piece of music for a car chase and the thing got destroyed by engine revs and tires screaming. There's a freshness about the way they approach it. And left field. Their grammar is their own grammar. It's an incredible thing to find in film along with competence. It would be easy to find someone like that who was incompetent, but to be competent and be left field, that's like gold dust."
Barrow told Polygon in an interview from his home a week after the Austin meeting, that the key to creating the sounds used in the movie's score is discovering the right palette.
"Ben and I thought about what is going to be our palette, how musically are we going to describe the range of emotions going on," Barrow said. "Love, fear, anger, violence; all of these things need a voice."
While Ex Machina initially felt like a very different sort of movie for them — Barrow described it as an hour and a bit of dialog — he said ultimately the constant tension was what they sought to underscore.
"We had to be careful about the underscore, the music that is going on as people are chatting," he said. "You could give the viewer such the wrong idea.
"The hardest part was doing the score slowly but surely, writing music that reads between the lines."
In the end, the two worked to capture two sorts of emotions: For Ava, they wanted something unemotional and childlike, but beautiful. For the rest they sought to create a score to match the harrowing, suspenseful, almost horror aspect of the film.
"... that's like gold dust."
The film has an electronic score, a minimal approach that uses layered atmospheres to get the point across. There isn't a single drum beat in the entire soundtrack.
"I wanted to do a score without a beat in it," Barrow said. "We used an old organ, an old valve organ from 60s, then a few synthesizers. We don't use modern versions of stuff that are in computers."
The score culminates in the ending of the film with something that matches the power of the story's conclusion.
"Just on a technical level, what they do is really quite something," Garland said. "There's all this sound design basically dropping out. You have image and music, and it goes for a really long time. It goes on and on and on. It's pushing so hard on the genres of the score. It has to move through all these different spaces. You get this abstract wall of white noise and chimes that are bit-degrading into this clumsy scratchy bit of noise, and then ending up with this gossamer, delicate noise that floats.
"You feel like if you just touched it, it would splinter. It's an amazing thing they've done."
In a movie filled with interesting conversation, surprising, almost antagonistic humor and memorable scenes, there is one that stands out more than any other: The dance.
At some point during Caleb's stay, Nathan gets drunk and does this unsettling dance with his assistant. It comes out of nowhere and ends abruptly, and for it's brevity has a big impact on the viewers.
It's a scene that is compelling, a little jarring, and doesn't last long enough. It's also, Garland says, a good example of what he was going for in the entire film.
"That was precisely the intention," he said. "I worked on a film a few years ago, Never Let Me Go, which is a sort of serious literary adaptation type of thing. It has a tone that we hit very well, but that was the only tone we hit. It had this sort of less is more maxim, which we reversed. It was more is less. It was a lesson.
"With this film, which actually has something in common with Never Let Me Go in that it's a sort of Swiss watch type of movie, a careful construction of a certain sort, I was much more aggressive and spiky. I forced spikes into it in a particular way, percussive types of things that can allow you to do stuff with sound, hard cuts, things like that. In that dance scene, just as the audience is starting to dig it — they could probably stand it going on for another 15 seconds or so — you cut out too soon. You don't let them enjoy that in the right way, and you cut to him going down the corridor slapping his head. It was aggressive in its intent."
Isaac says he enjoyed the scene, working with a choreography to get it just right.
The same goes for the ebb and flow conversations with Gleeson that make up much of the movie, he said.
"That was all in the script — the language, the wit, the condescension, the sardonic, biting humor," he said. "That was all in there. The whole bro-billionaire thing? It was all right there."
In giving life to Nathan's personality, Isaac said he looked to isolated geniuses like Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick.
"I kinda landed on Bobby Fischer as someone I thought of who had a brilliant mind, but also had this incredible dark thing going on — reclusive, presented certain aspects of himself ahead of other ones," he said. "Kubrick was another person. I listened to the way he spoke. He was very intelligent, but he also had a roughness, because he was from the Bronx. A little bit of a self-taught kind of thing, because he was really bad at school, but quite brilliant at chess as well."
The result is a character whose own internal dichotomy helps breath life into the story and the characters around him. That's important given the nature of this film, which relies almost as heavily on what's not being said as it does on what is.
"There's so much double-talk, so much of people presenting something that's not necessarily the truth, or not the whole truth," Issac said. "Even Ava's doing the same thing, the manipulations that are happening."
Garland calls that double talk a product of drama that comes from conversation. It's also something very theatrical, which created another challenge for the film makers: How do you turn this thing into something that feels like a film and not a play?
"Part of the challenge in a piece of cinema is ... to make sure it doesn't then feel like a stage play where we've slug some cameras around," he said, "and to find cinema within that. It needs to feel like cinema."
Garland turns what could be a play into meaningful cinema through a smart use of language, which fuels the story, keeping it moving; and his abrupt cuts which jar the viewer's mind onto the next unanswered question.
Fundamentally, Garland's film seeks to explore the nature of humanity; what makes a person a person? But on the way it almost accidentally traipses through another provocative question, one about the internet, big tech companies and privacy.
"The current crop of AI-related narratives, and also public pronunciations of concern, I have a feeling don't come from concerns about AI directly, in a way," he said. "It's more to do with privacy issues. It's more to do with a sense that we have given up something of ourselves to machines, and that we understand less about the machines or the tech companies than they understand about us. That makes us feel uneasy, and probably should do as well. So I was trying to acknowledge that within the script, or within the film."
Early in the process of finding financing for the film, Garland said he ran into people who seemed doubtful about the reality of the plot. But it wasn't because they couldn't get behind the idea of a talking, thinking robot.
"This really strange thing happened where, when trying to get this film financed, one of the financiers we showed the script to, they said, 'This is really good, but this whole thing about tech companies Hoovering up information from mobile phones and stuff, it's just too ridiculous. They're not going to be doing that.'
"But then Edward Snowden came along and he really did blow the lid on that stuff, and thank God he did. It was a fantastic thing."
And while the film is in some ways prescient about those events and concerns, Garland says he never went back to beef up that question or narrative.
"It isn't a primary concern," he said. "The main thing was actually about how AI and consciousness kind of dovetail and relate to each other.
"Understanding one carries with it an implication about the other."