Back in January, when most Americans were still blissfully ignorant of the impending Coronavirus pandemic, “Contagion” quickly ascended to the top of the iTunes streaming charts — and there it has stayed for the past three months. Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 virus thriller is now the second most-watched movie in Warner Bros.’ catalogue for 2020. While the film bears uncanny parallels to the specifics of today’s pandemic, there are other cerebral sci-fi films that speak to the isolation of quarantine. Claire Denis’ visually arresting space saga “High Life” comes to mind, as well as Alex Garland’s tense 2014 sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina.”
The latter film consists of only five characters, and takes place almost entirely inside a remote contemporary mansion in the jungle. Domhnall Gleeson plays a computer programmer named Caleb, who is isolated in his room save for his daily meetings with A.I. robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) and follow-up sessions with her eccentric designer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
“It was such an intense experience filming that film,” Gleeson said during a recent phone interview. “It was six weeks, we were indoors for a lot of it, it was boiling hot, in the summertime. In the scenes with Oscar [Isaac], he’s basically bullying me in those scenes, like that character is always managing my character.”
The pressure was on; not only was the role emotionally taxing, but Gleeson was a huge admirer of Garland’s work.
“The Coen brothers were my first love, but there were a couple of people whose work I feel like I connected to other than anyone else. Alex Garland — I just loved ‘28 Days Later,’ but then ‘Sunshine’ I just thought was beautiful, just beautiful,” he said. “So it was a big deal for me doing that film, a huge deal, a lot of pressure on myself to try and do well and it was an intense atmosphere.”
One of the beautiful things about the film is the levity in Caleb’s scenes with Ava. The duo manage to form what appears to be a sincere connection, even amidst their uncertain surroundings.
“In the middle of [‘Ex Machina’] is I still believe a true love story,” said Gleeson. “Maybe because that was my job at the time, but I believe a true love story was happening between Caleb and Eva, even though he’s part of the problem and he’s part of the patriarchy in the world of the film. I still think that he actually falls in love with her.”
Filming the scenes with Vikander was such a bright spot in the otherwise grueling shoot, which reminds him of what much of the world is experiencing in lockdown.
“I found myself looking forward to those days so much, it was just totally nourishing food in the middle of all this pressure, this lovely place to go to,” he said. “So that reminds me of the quarantine time, too, these moments you share with your family and friends on Facetime or Skype or Zoom or whatever the hell, those moments just become so important.”