Oscar Isaac on Human Consciousness and Boogying Down in Ex Machina

By  · Published on April 17th, 2015



I’m embarrassed. I’ve just taken my seat to interview actor Oscar Isaac for his latest film, Ex Machina, and a minute into the interview I accidentally drink from his bottle of water. I blurt out, “I drank from your water,” and he looks puzzled, as if I just spoke in an alien language ‐ which I might as well have been speaking in, because I, embarrassed and working on little sleep, mumble and garble my apology like I’ve never spoken a lick of English. The very smooth Isaac finds a way to turn my moment of awkwardness into a question regarding Ex Machina, a film packed with questions about what it means to be human, which is what Isaac wants to get to the bottom of.

“You can have a sip of that water and try to explain to me what that felt like, but I can never know when I drink that water if it’s anything similar to what you experienced,” Isaac tells me, to which I respond: embarrassment. “Oh, sure, other than being embarrassed. That’s the thing, with Ava (Alicia Vikander), you can say she wasn’t conscious because she didn’t mean any of that stuff, but that’s not true. Her experience can be completely alien to us. Her form of self-awareness can be completely separate from ours, but that doesn’t mean it’s not self-awareness.”

Isaac, of course, is referring to Ava, the robotic femme fatale in this awesome science-fiction mind game. Alex Garland’s (Never Let Me Go, Dredd) directorial debut is about the creation of artificial intelligence. This film finally poses the burning question: what would happen if some alcoholic super genius bro created A.I. instead of some dweeb? Obviously, things wouldn’t look too bright for humanity or artificial intelligence. Nathan is a macho genius, played by Osacar Isaac, with real charm and menace.

A young coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins Nathan’s company’ raffle, meaning the young man gets to spend some quality one-on-one time with the CEO. Caleb doesn’t know what he’s in for, but upon his arrival, he learns Nathan has created artificial intelligence, and it’s his job to perform a turing test, which is meant to determine whether a machine is indistinguishable from a human.

Right from the start, things aren’t quite right in Ex Machina. Nathan’s creation, Ava, arguably fails the test from the start, since she’s clearly not human: her robotic body is not completely masked with skin. What about her feelings, though? How does she experience her conversations with Caleb and Nathan? What of her hopes and dreams? Does she have any? Are they real or programmed? That’s what Caleb, and Oscar Isaac, want to ask.

“I think one of the most interesting aspects of this movie has been the meditation on consciousness and the nature of consciousness, and that’s what artificial intelligence forces you to question,” Isaac says. “If you’re trying to make something self-aware, you really have to consider what it means to be self-aware. A lot of prejudices come in, because we all want to believe consciousness is so special, but maybe it’s a byproduct ‐ a phenomenon that happens. You feel like you’re this little guy inside moving this machine, but that’s just a phenomenon. It’s basically a byproduct of your interaction with outside elements and your senses all coming together giving you this information. One of the questions is: how can you ever know if your experience of existence is anything like anyone else’s?”

The smallest of gestures in Vikander’s performance suggest human consciousness. Ava smiles when no one else is around her, and why would she do that? It’s not some automated response, but a genuine reaction to a thought she’s had. If that doesn’t make her human, then what does?

Ex Machina draws many comparisons between its human characters and its robotic one. All three characters have their own selfish motivation, whether devious or not. “Nathan needs to maneuver Caleb to get the experiment to work, and the experiment is: what will she do to escape?” asks Isaac. “He’s dangling some cheese, which is Caleb. How will she get through this maze? The truth is, I think he’s waiting for the person who will make the machine want to leave. It’s not only what he wants to do, but he also knows it’s the impending doom of what’s going to happen.”

Ava seeks what any human wants: freedom. Nathan treats his child as an experiment, not a person. It experiences new emotions when it meets Caleb, but are any of these feelings genuine or are they, like Nathan’s, calculated? Any interpretation of their relationship ‐ and its outcome ‐ is valid. Ava’s desire for freedom is, to a degree, what drives Nathan, according to Isaac. “I think after Nathan made the first one, he realized, When I make one of these, it wants freedom,” Isaac explains “He wants to see how smart he can make one of these, because that’s something to work with. On top of that, there’s the fact he makes them all young beautiful women, and why wouldn’t he? It’s just him by himself. What does his porn look like? Some people have weird sexual proclivities, and that one is pretty basic. For Nathan, that’s just who he is.”

Ava resembles Nathan in more ways than it would probably care to admit. When Isaac describes Nathan’s thought process, it doesn’t sound wildly dissimilar from Ava’s. “This is a guy who thinks 25 moves ahead, and in different directions,” says Isaac. “Even from line to line, there’s shifts that could be happening. Nathan’s not casual about what he’s doing. Everything is motivated by some sort of bull he wants to attain.” Both Nathan and Ava have goals, and they present certain personas to Caleb to accomplish their plans. “There’s a fatalist aspect to him as well. I would say he’s definitely misanthropic, fatalistic, and doesn’t view humanity as much at all. I think he believes we’re going to go extinct rather shortly, and it’s just a matter of time; he’s in there making the machine that’s going to do that. Nathan is testing them, and testing them intensely.”

That subject Nathan is intensely testing artificial intelligence on? Dancing. The film’s most surreal scene features Nathan and one of his creations grooving to some funky tunes. After discussing the headier questions regarding human consciousness and motivations found in Ex Machina, it feels only right to ask Isaac about one of the finest forms of human expression: boogying down. “It was very, very choreographed,” Isaac says, laughing. “We had this choreographer come in and teach us some fly dance moves. The whole routine was actually twice as long, but Alex [Garland] smartly cut it to the right moment, and it’s a great cut in the movie. So yeah, we did quite a few rehearsals to get that in sync. The idea is he programmed the robot to do this particular dance.”

Watching Oscar Isaac dance, ladies and gentlemen, is what it means to be human.

Ex Machina is now in limited release.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.