Artificial Intelligence has fascinated filmmakers as far back as the 1920s with Fritz Lang’s dazzling “Metropolis.” Recently, AI has found its way more frequently into movies.
Look at “Her,” “Big Hero 6,” “Chappie,” and the upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and it seems there’s no limit to how storytelling can implement our curiosity towards soulless devices programed to have all the (good and bad) traits of humans.
So when screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Dredd”) decided to examine this fertile ground with his directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” he knew his AI had to be different.
The film follows a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a contest to meet Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the famous CEO of the Google-like company where he’s employed. After a helicopter leaves Caleb on Nathan’s secluded compound, he learns that Nathan has created an AI and wants him to conduct the Turing test on it; which determins whether it can pass as a human.
The AI is named Ava, and though there’s no mistaking she’s a robot with her visible metal skeletal structure and exposed inner workings, newcomer Alicia Vikander gives her such an emotional presence that at times Ava comes across as a living, breathing human.
The physical presence of Ava was something Garland took a lot of thought in. The challenge he saw was not just making Ava look more robotic than humans but also create a fresh robotic look to present to movie audiences.
“There was this huge danger the first time Ava walks onto the screen that the first thing you do is think about another movie,” said Garland.
In creating concept art with UK artist Jock, Garland pushed aside any iconic look that would make you think of another movie bot. They couldn’t use a gold colour because it brought up too many recollections of C-3PO from the “Star Wars” saga. They also decided not to use white as it made them think of the robot in Björk’s music video for “All is Full of Love” or the robots from Will Smith’s 2004 movie “I, Robot.”
Finally they landed on mesh, and it just fit.
“Under certain lighting conditions it would give a kind of glimpse of the female form but almost drew your attention to the machine’s skeleton structure inside Ava,” said Garland.
“I looked like Spider-Man,” said Vikander, who spent four-and-a-half hours in hair and makeup before each shooting day to become Ava.
“The silver mesh covered my whole body and went up to a ball cap. So my forehead in the film was actually built into the suit,” she tells BI. “I would get there at 3:50am, so they built for me a little stick with a tennis ball at the end, because I couldn’t have a headrest. So when they finished getting my hair and forehead all made up I would prop my head on that and went back to sleep while they did the rest.”
Though Garland feels there’s more to the film than just AI — specifically, the control major technology companies have on our daily lives — he knew that Ava needed to be that bridge to take you deeper into the story, and for it to work she had to look unique.
“You need to be locked into the same experience Caleb [the main character] is having,” Garland explains. “Anything else takes you out of the moment you should be in.”
“Ex Machina” is now open in limited release and will be out nationwide April 24.
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