Science fiction is a difficult genre to tackle, as it asks the audience to suspend its disbelief and buy into unusual, fantastical ideas. But, if successfully engendered, sci-fi can achieve what no other genre can really tap into: grand thematic strokes combined with exceptional creative flourishes.

“The reason to work in sci-fi from my point of view is that you’re just allowed to deal with big themes and big ideas and not be embarrassed about it,” writer-director Alex Garland said in a conference call in which The Michigan Daily took part. “You know if you try to put that stuff in an action movie or even an adult drama … people get kind of sort of almost self-conscious about really big questions, and feel like it might be all be too pretentious or whatever. But sci-fi audiences want big ideas, they like them being named checked, it’s seen as an advantage rather than a negative.”

Garland’s latest film, “Ex Machina,” has been hailed by many critics as a modern genre staple, an achievement all the more impressive when one realizes the film is Garland’s first serving as director, though it wasn’t his initial idea to direct.

“I didn’t think in those terms (of directing). In a weird way, I don’t really care about those terms, it’s partly ’cause I just don’t — I don’t really overstate the role of the director,” Garland said. “I think at the point I was writing it, I was really just trying to figure out does this work, is there a movie here, does it work in its own terms. And the directing aspect of it was something that just came later and just felt like it made sense.”

For Garland, filmmaking is a team process, one where the director is just another cog in the machine that is film production. Every person on set has a role to play.

“The way to make it work is all about the people you work with, it’s just as simple as that,” Garland said. “I mean it’s the team that are the filmmakers and how they work with each other and the level of the ideas they come up with and how they solve problems. And so you know it’s the director of photography and it’s the production designer, and it’s the actors, and that’s how the film is executed.”

But certainly there were potential challenges, especially with crafting the sleek computer-generated effects to create Ava (played by Alicia Vikander, “Anna Karenina”), the hyper-intelligent AI on whom the story is centered. Ava’s sleek metallic body features eerily human characteristics, and gives the character a complex appearance. But Garland notes how the computer generation process didn’t interfere with the rest of production.

“Actually it was very, very easy on this film,” Garland said. “You can’t shoot this constantly fussing about the effects shot. Just shoot it as if you’re shooting humans and we will figure out a process by which you don’t have to worry about it past that. In other words just shoot the drama, don’t worry about the process … (the computer generation) was all done in post-production. So it was a, from my point of view, a very simple process indeed.”

While the computer generated image certainly adds an aesthetic appeal, it is the actors who bring the characters forward, finding the deep-seated motivations of the characters. Of particular note are Vikander and Oscar Isaac (“A Most Violent Year”).

About Vikander, Garland said, “You could just see that (she) was just totally holding her own and sort of transfixing you and had this amazing presence and amazing confidence,”

And about Isaac, Garland took a more assertive stance.

“One of the most common lines of bullshit that I read in reviews or film writing is talking about how a director coaxed a performance out of an actor. If you met Oscar, I promise you, you’d see I didn’t coax anything out of him,” he said.

But the ideas of the film — ideas of gender, identity, free will, the very construct of humanity — all constitute the soul of the film. And it was conveying these ideas in a realistic but thought-provoking level that motivated Garland most.

“I mean, basically, because it’s an ideas movie, that’s really what it is. It’s got a bunch of thoughts and questions and it’s proposing them and only answering some of them,” Garland said. “And so there was an attempt to be very thoughtful and very reasonable in the presentation of these things, because I know, unfortunately all too well, what my own limitations are and failings either in talent or intellect.”

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