Alex Garland’s Ex Machina: can a film about an attractive robot be feminist science fiction?

In Ex Machina, Alex Garland – writer of The Beach and 28 Days Later  suggests that the brave new dawn of artificial intelligence will not kill off our crappy old gender dynamics. Helen Lewis meets him.

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A few months ago, a friend asked me to see a film. Oh, and would I talk to its director afterwards about how it looked from a feminist perspective? I agreed immediately – principally, I liked the idea of getting a bespoke version of a DVD commentary – and found myself surrounded by film executives in a central London screening room, watching Alex Garland’s new movie, Ex Machina.

It begins with a twentysomething software engineer, Caleb, being invited to the mountain retreat of his company’s elusive founder, Nathan. In a cabin miles from anywhere – a lesser film would have had Caleb looking at his phone to discover the tragic words “No signal” – the brilliant, alcoholic and dysfunctional Nathan has built an artificial intelligence and housed it in the body of a delicate, whirring robot called Ava. He wants Caleb to perform a version of the Turing test to find out if Ava has consciousness.

What follows is a claustrophobic thriller (one that is best experienced without knowing anything about it, so be warned, spoilers lie ahead). While completing the test, Caleb falls for Ava, who is played by the former ballet dancer Alicia Vikander with the perfect mixture of frailty and toughness. But Nathan is already thinking of the next model. He plans to break Ava up for parts.

Afterwards, I told Garland that the film seemed to be a deconstruction of male power fantasies: Nathan imagines himself as a creator-God, and his AI’s femininity reflects her presumed subservience. The naive Caleb, on the other hand, casts himself as a knight in shining armour, saving Ava from the clutches of her callous jailer. It doesn’t occur to either of them that Ava might have thoughts and feelings – an interior life of her own – to which they have no access.

A few weeks later, I found myself talking about the film to Deborah Cameron, a professor of linguistics at Oxford University. She pointed out that there are very few male computer voices – lifts are female; the Tube announcer is female; most people prefer a female satnav. “When you ask people what they want, they use code words like ‘approachable’ or ‘relatable’. They mean subservient,” she told me. “They also want breathiness, which is a marker of sexual arousal.” In other words, even though the advent of artificial intelligence is heralded as an era of change, it is likely to reproduce the same old crappy gender dynamics.

Talking of which, Ex Machina has a problem: in order to critique the objectification of Ava, it must actually objectify her. She is shown gazing at herself naked in front of a mirror for a lingering moment and there are several other instances of full-frontal ­female nudity in the film. The men, however, keep their trousers on.

I challenged Garland over this at the time and when we meet again in a north London coffee shop for our interview he hasn’t forgotten it. (Possibly because most arts critics don’t say things like “I just feel there should be more . . . pipe in films” to directors.) “If you are in part doing something about the objectification of women, you undermine it by – in a reflexive or nervous way – doing a bit of equalising objectification of men,” he says. But wouldn’t including both male and female nudity have stopped any accusations of sexism, and made life easier for him? “If the point is that it’s pornographic, then you could say, ‘Fair enough, I’ll appeal to people who want to see naked men as well as people who want to see naked women.’” But his intention was precisely to show up the inequality, so he ignored all advice to include male nudity, too.

This question of how porous a writer should be to other people’s opinions is one to which Garland returns several times. He notes that “a lot of my working life has been co-writing, essentially”, and that he prefers to submerge himself in a team – perhaps because he found his early literary celebrity so invasive. In 1996 it felt as if every other person you met was reading his first novel, The Beach, and its 26-year-old author was regarded with a mixture of admiration, envy and anticipatory Schadenfreude over how hard it would be to follow up such a success.

Over the next eight years, he published just two novels; the second, The Coma, about a man trapped inside his own head after a savage beating, was illustrated by his father, the newspaper cartoonist Nicholas Garland. Growing up in Hampstead, north London, the young Alex had presumed that he would follow his father into journalism. “It was my dad’s world, because he worked in newspapers,” he says. “But I found non-fiction very hard to write. I quickly realised I had an instinctive need, a sort of pedantry, to qualify and requalify any statement I made when trying to present it as fact. And it becomes very hard to say anything under those terms. Fiction removes that problem completely.” True to form, he qualifies this. “Or not completely, but substantially.”

But even novel-writing didn’t allow him to disappear completely behind his art, which is what he wanted. As a teenager, he had read J D Salinger – and seen how little information about him was available. “Some part of me thought, ‘This is appropriate; only reacting to the thing is appropriate.’ And I still feel that.” He cites the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto as two examples of art that has become tainted by knowledge of their creators’ biographies. For this reason, the information about him that is publicly available is perfunctory: he is married to the actor Paloma Baeza, has two children and lives in north London near where he grew up. That’s about it. He hasn’t written a novel since 2004. He has no desire to live what he calls a “large, outward-looking, inspected life”.

“Maybe it’s a good idea to know about the people who are behind something – but I don’t want to,” he says. “I also feel that way about stories. The best way to encounter something is cold. Even if I have to stand up in front of a group of people and present the film, I want to say as little as possible. Just get out of the way, get out of the fucking way of the film. Have the thing responded to on its merits and its failings.”

This approach is out of step with today’s media culture, which can feel like a non-stop rolling referendum on whether this or that public figure is a bad person and their work should be avoided (recent examples: Roman Polanski, Lena Dunham, Bill Cosby). Garland says that judging a film through the lens of its director’s biography is particularly pointless. Now that he is one, he is able to assert that directors get far too much credit. “I’ve never had any personal experience that makes me believe in auteurism within collaborative mediums.”

He also says it’s not up to him to decide whether the film is misogynistic: sexism is in the eye of the beholder. But the geneticist Adam Rutherford, who acted as scientific adviser on Ex Machina, is ready to defend it. He acknowledges my concern about the “male gaze”, but says the film “couldn’t be further from the way Michael Bay shoots Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, which is basically like a horny 14-year-old”.

Rutherford was brought in to make sure that the film seemed scientifically plausible. It is set, he says, “ten minutes into the future” – using technology that does not yet exist but is not impossible. Ava’s brain, for instance, is made of a structured gel: you couldn’t fit that much information on a conventional computer, no matter how large it was. Her “software” is Nathan’s search engine: she is therefore an aggregate of all of us – or at least the bits of ourselves we offer up to Google. (If the Turing test had a section on cat gifs, presumably she’d ace it.) How you feel about Ava – is she good or bad? – is ultimately how you feel about humanity.

Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, was also consulted on the film. He tells me over the phone that he hopes that, after watching it, people will argue in the pub about the morality of artificial intelligence. “It’s a straight, creepy thriller, and yet it treats these very important philosophical questions . . . like the Turing test and the Chinese room,” he says. “To get . . . those things into Empire magazine in itself deserves a prize, I think.”

Nerds admire Alex Garland – who is a nerd, too, having grown up reading comics and playing computer games. I mention to Rutherford that people seem to feel very loyal to the writer. In a piece for the Financial Times, the NS critic Antonia Quirke, who has known him for a decade, attributes this to him being “one of those charismatic people who don’t behave as if they know they are charismatic”. Rutherford agrees that he inspires strong emotions. “I do feel desperately loyal to him. Also, I’ve worked on a few films and I don’t think I’m breaking any trade secrets to say it’s an industry full of bullshit artists. And Alex is not a bullshit artist.”

Rutherford adds that Garland, whose degree is in history of art, is unusually willing to listen to scientific experts. “He’ll phone me up and we’ll have these ridiculous hour-long conversations while I’m in Sainsbury’s, where he’s really interrogating two sentences that I’ve written on an email.” He says that Garland pays absolutely no attention to his thoughts about overall plot or narrative, however. “And that’s right – because it’s not what I’m there for.”

One person the writer does listen to is the producer Andrew Macdonald, with whom he collaborated on the adaptation of ­Kazuo Ishiguro’s bleak science-fiction ­novel Never Let Me Go, and the Danny Boyle films Sunshine and 28 Days Later. They first met in a Soho coffee shop when Macdonald brought along Boyle, who wanted to turn The Beach into a film. During pre-production, the producer enticed Garland to Thailand, where he first glimpsed his contrarian personality. “We were staying in this touristy hotel in Phuket, and Alex turns up and recommends to me: ‘Have you tried the burger?’ I’d been diligently working my way through pad Thai, and crab, and all that stuff. And it turns out that the burger is one of the best things on the room service menu. Alex, of course, has spent a lot of time in his room, eating burgers. That’s very Alex.”

Their next encounter was when Garland sent over the screenplay for 28 Days Later, which begins with Jim, a coma patient, waking up to discover that London is deserted. After animal rights activists freed lab monkeys infected with a “rage virus”, a plague swept the country. Even worse, the Infected (internet pedants won’t let you call them zombies) don’t shamble. They run.

Macdonald tells me there have been only two times in his life when a novice screenwriter sent him a script that provoked such a strong emotional reaction. “People are obsessed by the format of a screenplay – camera moves and exteriors, and day and night stuff,” he says. “And, of course, none of it matters if you can tell a story that makes you feel like you are witnessing it in a cinema. That’s what Alex did. He’s very lean, and he has a very good sense of a propulsive story.”

In the film’s third act, Jim and his two female companions reach a stately home filled with soldiers. Far from sanctuary, however, it offers a new kind of threat, because the brigadier in charge wants Jim’s companions to become sex slaves to boost his men’s morale. 28 Days Later therefore plays on the classic zombie trope – when the chips are down, the government can’t protect you – but doesn’t take it in the usual libertarian direction of implying that the only salvation is rugged self-reliance and lots of guns. When Garland showed Macdonald the script, the producer said: “It’s like a Ken Loach zombie movie.”

The choice between chaos and totalitarianism is also evident in his 2012 film, Dredd, where the citizens of a dystopian future are caught between anarchic drug barons and an ultra-violent police force with no use for concepts such as “bail” and “pleading not guilty”. This ambivalence about authority is one of the few themes that Garland will admit to seeing repeatedly in his work – besides atheism and a propensity for passive male protagonists. “If you want to see a thread, there is fascism in all these things in a funny kind of way. Because liberals have a bit of fascist in them, I think.”

The other recurring issue – at least among film critics – is a tendency for his movies to end in unexpected ways. Or, to put it another way, for the third act to stage an uprising and try to secede into another genre entirely. This happens even in his biggest commercial success, 28 Days Later, which earned ten times its £5m budget at the box office. The DVD version includes two alternate filmed endings, and another on storyboards, where the group of survivors never encounters the soldiers at all.

“To be honest, we never finished the film,” Macdonald says. “One of those classic things where we ran out of money and time . . . I think its success is really about the first hour. That’s the bit that’s truly frightening.” Garland’s next collaboration with Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine – a psychological thriller set on a spaceship trying to reignite the sun – has also attracted criticism for its third act, where it moves from science fiction to slasher movie.

Perhaps his aversion to pat, overly neat endings is down to Garland’s hatred of certainty and commitment, his queasiness about ruling on one version of reality being the “truth”. That would also account for why Ex Machina works so well, because it embraces that uncertainty. It is a film where the three lead characters all believe themselves to be the protagonist; the drama comes from their respective struggles for control of the narrative.

It is a tightly bound film, both in the sense of its story and its location: it was filmed in Norway and at Pinewood Studios in a tearing hurry, thanks to its relatively small £11m budget. As the film’s writer and director, Garland was able to tailor the script to the funding and time available.

“Up to that point in my working life, everything felt as if it had been compromised by something particular . . . often a limitation in [my] ability,” he says. “In this instance, I had a really clear goal. I had the right people around me, and the right script. I’ve been on many toxic productions. This was not like that.”

Macdonald seconds this. “With Ex Mach­ina, there have been less dramas, less reshoots. For him, as a writer/director, it will probably never get any better – because we’re about to do something incredibly insane next! Ambitiously insane.”

I resist asking Macdonald what this is. For once, perhaps I will take Garland’s advice: let him get out of the way and let his story step into the limelight unaided.

“Ex Machina” (15) is out now

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East