Two men are in a power struggle over control of a female named Ava in the sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina.” It just happens this gorgeous and ethereal Ava is a robot female, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Ava has a superior intellect and emotional consciousness. She has an angelic face. She also has a gorgeous exterior, even if her body mainly features webs of metallic mesh, glowing blue diodes and plastic limbs.
The men competing over Ava’s fate are Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the brilliant but creepy head of an Internet-search giant, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at his firm who spends a week at his boss’s remote and futuristic estate to test Ava’s capabilities and consciousness to determine if she can pass for a woman. Ava proves to be so intellectually and emotionally advanced that she surpasses the expectations of both of them, the one who built her and the one who falls for her.
“Ex Machina” is written and directed by Alex Garland, who is making his directing debut, and is best known for his screenplay collaborations with director Danny Boyle on “The Beach,” “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later.”
Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac attended a press event together at the Crosby Street Hotel last week to promote the film. The Swedish actress has five other films slated for release this year, including Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” co-starring Eddie Redmayne, and Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” co-starring Michael Fassbender, who she is now dating.
Oscar Isaac, whose name has become familiar over the past few years (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year”), will become a lot more famous with his roles in two big franchise films. Look for him as Poe Dameron in “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” landing in theaters Dec. 18, 2015. He’ll play Apocalypse in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” in theaters May 27, 2016.
Following are highlights from the roundtable with Vikander and Isaac:
Why do you think there is this continuing fascination with Artificial Intelligence?
Oscar Isaac: You could even trace (it back to) the idea of us creating a Frankenstein or something that we can’t control. I think because we know that we are the top dogs on the planet and we also know how shitty we are. (laughs) And so the idea that we could create something that we would not control or that would be imbued with some of our worst qualities I think is a reality.
Alicia Vikander: I think it’s the same thing. It’s also a question about consciousness, about A.I. but mostly it came down to talking about human beings in the end and about feelings of making something that has its own world.
Isaac: I think also it forces us to ask questions about the nature of ourselves and awareness of our consciousness, which is like every religion is basically trying to figure out what that is about. And this is just another way of talking about it because if your job is to reconstruct basically a human mind, where do you start? What is necessary? Is sexuality necessary? What kind of interaction is necessary? Is some sense of organic material (necessary)? These are all things that make the movie’s arc. Is consciousness just a byproduct of something else happening?
Vikander: Reading about the human brain and realizing that it all comes down to signals and hormones and love. And you can kind of get a chemical form to try and ascribe whatever your feeling is and then start reading it like that and suddenly you start seeing my whole body as machinery. And then you start to see in your head try to fantasize so what if it comes down to all those parts, could we then just create those parts and put them all together?
When you were constructing this character, did you talk with Alex about whether there is morality in science? Is there a guiding principle or morality in Nathan’s intellectual viewpoint towards A.I. creatures?
Isaac: I would describe them more as ethical questions as opposed to moral ones or whatever. I guess it is semantics. The ethical question of when you know that something is self aware then what is your responsibility with it, because Nathan finds himself in this interesting predicament that every time he creates this machine and gets it to the point where it becomes self aware, it immediately wants to escape. And for him, I think, he doesn’t have much empathy for human beings, so why is he going to have much empathy for this creation? It’s the next evolution anyway. He says, ‘Don’t feel bad for her! Feel bad for us because this is the end of us.’ And I think it’s inevitable. He knows that it’s inevitable.
And also this thing, one of the lines from the script is why, well, because I can. It’s an evolution of, ‘if I don’t do it, someone else will do it.’ It’s like putting a red button in front of any human being. They will eventually push it.
Oscar, your character builds a creation that he ends up having no control over. With his superior intellect to everyone he meets, why didn’t he create a kill switch?
Isaac: He explains that. He says his whole point is to create something that will be smart enough to escape. He’s not looking for control.
Vikander: That’s part of the test.
Isaac: He makes something that’s self-aware. She immediately wants to escape. Interesting. Can’t escape. It’s too stupid. Let’s make the next one. Ah, this one’s getting better. This one’s getting better. This one’s getting better. This one’s getting better. So finally what he decides to do when he thinks he finds the one that can maybe do it, he brings somebody else in.
Alicia, you started as a dancer. Can you talk about how your dance training informed your movement as Ava, and talk about the physicality, in general, of your character?
Vikander: I did spend a lot of time and tried to find the physicality and the voice of Ava, because we had to be something that we hadn’t seen before. But also I tried to embody the fact that I knew, well, like Nathan knows, that he’s already created something that seems to have a conscious, so my aim focus was not to try and portray or make a robot, it was to make a girl. And with this creature or thing that has been made, if it’s her main will to become this girl, try to aim for that. And believe me or not, when the perfection of trying to walk or talk like a human, it made her be more robotic, because humans have flaws and are more inconsistent than maybe Ava was… She’s a bit offbeat.
Isaac: It’s great because it’s like acting self-awareness … she’s an entity that’s hyper self aware. That’s a very hard thing to do.
Vikander: So being a bit more perfect, being something a bit more human, almost like the 2.0 human is Ava, and that made her different from us.
How did you end up getting the roles?
Vikander: I sent an audition tape. I was surprised (to get the role). It was still early in my career and they just gave me the call and said that I got the part, yeah.
Isaac: And Alex was doing one of those kinds of speed dating things, where he meets a bunch of actors, like one after the other, at a hotel, and I was in the line of many. I came in, but I had already gotten incredibly obsessed over ‘Sunshine.’ It was the first movie I auditioned for out of school, and I had read that script. I was so obsessed with it. And so I was well aware of Alex and so when I read this…
Vikander: So he kissed ass (laughs).
Isaac: I kissed every inch of that ass, yeah, but I nerded out on him and on all the concepts. Basically, we talked science for an hour, and then the next day he offered me the part. It was awesome.