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Movies: Female Robot, Ex Machina

It's not every movie that begins as a ten-year-long argument between friends about the nature of artificial intelligence. Then again, Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, whose work to date as both novelist and screenwriter has revelled in big ideas, imaginative sci-fi conceits and smart genre twisting. “It was about these things called ‘qualia’, and my friend’s conviction in them and my uncertainty in them, and they relate directly to AI,” says Garland who helpfully suggests look up qualia on Wikipedia. “A part of me that’s a genuine sci-fi geek, that’s interested in the science aspect of sci-fi, just responded to that. And in my head the argument started to reform itself as a narrative.”


And so we’re here on B Stage at Pinewood Studios, where production designer Mark Digby has built the subterranean part of a modernist Alaskan hideout belonging to Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, the reclusive millionaire CEO of the world’s largest (fictional) internet search engine, named Bluebook after Wittgenstein’s diary. Constructed mainly from man-made elements such as concrete, metal and glass, with the odd natural flourish (exposed rock, terrariums) thrown in, Digby’s remarkable sets play host to the majority of the film, although they’ll be supplemented by a fortnight’s filming in Norway.

Ex Machina which takes its name from the Latin “deus ex machina”, meaning “God from the machine”, but is also a screenwriting term for an unearned plot point is, according to producer Allon Reich, “a sci-fi thriller, but the sci-fi is of today”. Today’s scenes involve an interrogation of sorts between Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a Bluebook coder who winds up spending a week in the home of his enigmatic boss, and Ava (Alicia Vikander): an AI housed in the body of a robot. It’s a discussion that involves her drawings and thoughts on the outside world. The set is called the Observation Room, although in a smart piece of reverse design it’s Caleb who’s inside a glass cube, not Ava, adding to the subtext of who exactly is observing whom.

“It’s old-fashioned science fiction,” maintains Garland as he sets off for the studio cafeteria for a quick snack. “You’ve got two guys, a female robot and another woman, and it’s what happens to those four people over the course of trying to establish whether this machine is conscious or not. And the examination of the machine’s consciousness leads to an examination of their own. Hence it gets trippy and psychedelic.”

Garland and his two actors, who worked together previously on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, spend the day ploughing through many pages of dialogue without any problems, thanks to a couple of weeks’ intense rehearsal during which all the big, philosophical questions were ironed out. To play the robotic Ava, Vikander wears a grey, skin-tight mesh suit as well as prosthetics that cover her hair, leaving her face a beatific mask, a costume and make-up regime that has required her being at Pinewood at 4am for the past five days. Ultimately, only her face, hands and feet will be seen on screen, all Ava’s internal mechanics will be a visual effect.

“She’s remarkable,” says Garland of his leading lady. “She’s wearing a costume that does not really indicate very much about how she will end up looking, so there’s a lot of trust in the team of people who are making the film.” He pulls out his iPhone and reveals a concept drawing of Ava that he gave the actress to “carry with her as [a visual of] where she would go.” Garland smiles. “She just clearly decided, like a bungee jumper, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ and then she jumped... and is doing an amazing job.”

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