For a man whose directorial debut has earned almost uniformly stellar reviews, Alex Garland seems slightly pessimistic about what might come next. It's likely because of his experiences writing “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” All three earned some heaping of critical praise, but either disappointed or had middling success at the box office. “Ex Machina,” which has already had success on the other side of the Atlantic, may break that trend.
A contemporary science fiction thriller, “Machina” finds a young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), dropped off at the remote estate of his company's mysterious and genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb has won a contest at their Google-like company to spend a week with this powerful, Steve Jobs-esque figure, but he soon learns, however, that he's been recruited for a specific experiment. Nathan has secretly been developing an artificial intelligence that “lives” within a walking and talking robotic body. Caleb has been brought in to interact with Eva (Alicia Vikander) and help determine if “she” has really reached a true level of independent consciousness.
Garland sat down with HitFix earlier this month to discuss whether machines can actually achieve human-level A.I., finding great actors (quite easy it seems), the film's stunning production design and what's next.
HitFix: You”ve probably heard this question a hundred times but…
Alex Garland: I think I”ve heard it before.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Three things. When I was 12, [I was coding in the most basic way in the basic language], in a very sort of ultra-simplistic way making it talk so it could do a little routine. 'Hello, how are you. I”m fine. What”s the weather like.' So, very limited but it would give you this weird feeling like it”s alive essentially, you know. And then years later a good friend of mine, his thing is neuroscience and he comes from a position that says machines can”t be sensitive for various reasons. There”s something we don”t understand about consciousness, our consciousness. When we do understand it we”ll see that it precludes the idea that a machine can be conscious and it”s a very reasonable argument which a lot of people believe and it has strong sort of…
He basically believes that a machine can never have consciousness.
Ever. And that”s not a niche position at all. Nor is it a religious position. I mean it is an absolutely kind of well-argued scientifically unphilosophical position, but it didn”t feel right to me. And really because I used to argue against him and be left behind by his literal expertise, I just started reading about it and I read and read and read and another friend of mine who knew that I was sort of getting fixated on the subject matter gave me a book by a guy called Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial which is like our version of MIT. And I started reading the book while we were in prep on Dredd out in South Africa and it really had an impact and it sort of consolidated some of the things I”d been thinking about. [It]sort of answered some of the questions that kept buzzing around my head. And the story for this film just kind of arrived. I wrote it very, very quickly, just a smashed out thing, a way too short piece of shit. You could never film it, but it gets it down [on paper]. And then we made 'Dredd.' At the tail end of that whole thing, I handed it over and then thought, 'Alright, now I”m going to try and get stuck into this' and that was it.