You’ll have to wait until December 18th 2015 for the Force to awaken in a fresh chapter of ‘Star Wars’, but it’s hard not to see ‘Ex_Machina’ – released Jan 23 – as something of an unofficial teaser. After all, it’s a rich sci-fi thrill ride starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac (see below) – both of them part of the cast of JJ Abrams’ Star Wars return – and it revolves around sentient robots.
But to be fair, (and as our exclusive clip attests) ‘Ex_Machina’, written and directed by Alex Garland, isn’t quite Star Wars. For a start, it’s not very family friendly: this is cinema for grown-ups, about the complicated relationship between a young, ambitious coder, his reclusive billionaire boss, and a robot girl named Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) who might, in fact, be the most human of them all.
Caleb (Gleeson) is dispatched to the mountain retreat of his alpha male employer Nathan (Isaac), where he’s charged with a peculiar request: perform a Turing Test on his new, artificially intelligent robot invention and determine whether she would pass for human.
The Turing Test, invented by Imitation Game subject Alan Turing to determine whether an artificial intelligence has actual consciousness, generally involves a blind conversation – the human interrogator can’t see the robot, so must use the conversation alone to determine whether it passes.
But when Caleb first claps eyes on Ava – as seen in our clip – she couldn’t be more resolutely robotic. “That was absolutely the idea,” Garland tells us. “The key thing is that you present her as beautiful, elegant and strange, but most of all you present her as a machine. You begin with something you wouldn’t attribute sentience to, and then show that it’s there.”
Garland is keen to stress the amount of collaboration with his cast and crew that goes into what is ostensibly quite a simple scene. We see Ava in silhouette, and she walks up to Caleb and introduces herself. But even the environment hints and the way the balance of power might not be where we think it is.
“What the production designer, Mark Digby, has done with that set is quite sophisticated,” Garland explains. “He’s put the prisoner – the robot – in a larger space than the interrogator, who gets this tiny glass box. When you first see Ava you’re seeing her through multiple panes of glass, and behind her is this strange garden area, which implies the world outside. It’s elegant, intelligent production design, which is typical of him.”
The effect is completed by the score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury – “it uses childlike nursery chimes and sets her up as an innocent, untainted by contact with people and knowledge,” Garland says – and sophisticated sound design that blends the mechanical with the organic – Ava has a distinct, but distinctly metallic heartbeat.
Domhnall Gleeson told Yahoo that shooting the interrogation scenes was emotionally rigorous – each conversation is dripped in hidden meaning and intent. Says Garland: “The film essentially tracks the relationship between this young guy and this robot girl. Both of them – and, separately, Oscar – has to track the emotional arc very closely, to make sure they’re in the right place at any given moment.”
The obvious result is pure tension – Garland makes his directorial debut on the film, having written the likes of Dredd, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. Tense sci-fi is in his DNA, and ‘Ex_Machina’ promises to explore the biggest question of all: what makes us human?
‘Ex_Machina’ is released in the UK on 23 January. Check out the trailer below.