With critics’ kudos, four British Independent Film Award wins and a surprise Golden Globe nom for indie darling du jour Alicia Vikander, "Ex Machina" is the cool sleeper of this year’s awards season — and an Oscar could-be for Best Original Screenplay, despite being a non-eligible no-show on the WGA ballot.
"There’s anxiety to being both writer and director," writer/director Alex Garland told me in our telephone interview. "I identify as a writer, and like any writing gig, it’s struggling until the end."
Garland — who’s penned scripts and source material mainly for Danny Boyle — styles his elegant directorial debut with tweezer-like precision, constructing a battle-of-the-minds between Oscar Isaac as the hard-drinking CEO of a secluded software company, and Domnhall Gleeson as the protege who scores the lucky chance to go under his wing for a week at his underground brain factory. Slithering under all is AI humanoid Ava, made teasingly spooky by the subtle modulations of Vikander’s performance, part ingenue and part femme fatale.
While "Ex Machina" "sits in many genres, like horror or science fiction," said Garland, his next film is much more sci-fi. Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, "Annihilation" will star Tessa Thompson, Natalie Portman and Gina Rodriguez as participants in an expedition to a territory known ominously as Area X where, quarantined from civilization, previous explorers have died mysteriously. Mostly doctors and scientists, the ensemble is dominated by five female characters.
Garland already knows "Annihilation" will be a more “difficult film to shoot” than “Ex Machina,” a six-week production where “everything about the film [was] constrained and confirmed, like being in a small box” that you could “explore everything fully.”
When conceiving the visual strategy for "Ex Machina," “we discussed Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander.’ There’s a lot of VFX, but you’re not aware of it.” Garland said he “never felt the parameters” of filming “Ex Machina” on a soundstage in England and in Norway. Shot without green-screen, with all VFX done in post, it was a "luxury," he said.
Set up at Paramount by Scott Rudin, who tapped Garland after producing "Ex Machina," "Annihilation" promises to be a "surreal experience that requires adapting locations" to create a more "impressionistic mood poem." Garland said his adaptation of the novel, which he’ll write and direct this year, will emphasize "atmosphere and tone over structure and plot" — unlike his 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian "Never Let Me Go" directed by Mark Romanek, which Garland said was "more like a mirror."
A24, which is also backing Oscar hopefuls "Room" and "Amy," should see more indie and critics’ awards along the way for "Ex Machina." It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.