Ex Machina’s Alex Garland on avoiding Metropolis and Björk

Ex Machina’s Alex Garland tells us how to create a robot without copying Blade Runner or C-3PO

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson talk AI in Ex Machina
Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson talk AI in Ex Machina

In Alex Garland’s latest science fiction movie Ex Machina, genius programmer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) confronts his naive young employee Caleb (Dohmnall Gleeson) with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot who he has programmed with artificial intelligence.

It’s Caleb’s job to prove or disprove Ava’s consciousness but the question Caleb must ask if himself is, if Ava does indeed have a mind of her own, then what right does he, or Nathan, have to decide what to do with her?

When we talk to Garland about the film’s parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he’s quick to acknowledge the similarities while stressing the differences.

“What Frankenstein, what all those stories do, they’re all about the moral repercussions of creating life, aren’t they?” he asks. “So I guess [similarities] exist, though for me most of the arguments are really straightforward. I mean the truth is we do it the whole time. Everyone on the planet exists because two people created their life. So creating life in and of itself isn’t something that’s really hard to get our heads round and the moral implications of that are pretty clear too. So applying the same moral codes to this new form of life seems in some ways quite straightforward.”

“But yeah, I guess you can’t write this story without thinking about Frankenstein. You also can’t write this story without thinking about Blade Runner. I don’t think you can write this kind of story without being aware of what films like Blade Runner have done and stories like Frankenstein have done, and I’m not seeking to repeat that story. I’ve got a different angle that I’m trying to get across.”

Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina

Garland also worked hard to steer clear of classic sci-fi movies when it came to the design of Ava herself. There’s certainly a dash of Metropolis to to the film, as Garland tells us, but the combination of skin and metal makes Ava feel unique.

“Particularly of course if it’s a female looking robot, it’s incredibly hard to get away from Metropolis,” he tells us. “Blade Runner’s different because they just look like humans. When I was working on the early stages of Ava’s design with Jock, who’s a 2000AD comic book artist who works all over the place, and again Jock and I had worked very closely on Dredd, so we carried that through into Ex Machina.”

“We discovered all sorts of things and one of them was if Ava was coloured gold she was C-3PO. It didn’t matter what you did. She could be physically very different from C-3PO but basically you just immediately thought C-3PO. If you gave her a lot of white plastic in body structure, forearms, breasts, thighs, anything like that, she immediately became [the robot] in Chris Cunningham’s Björk video, just instantly. And which I know then got very used by I, Robot as well which is probably how most people have seen that version of a robot. So it was important to get her away from all those previous models because she has to feel fresh and we have to feel surprised by her when she walks initially. And then stop feeling surprised and start thinking of her as a person.”

Ex Machina is released in UK cinemas on 21 January. Read more from Alex Garland in the new issue of SciFiNow and find out what he thinks about the chances of a Dredd sequel here.