Sci-Fi Films Need More Big Ideas Like Ex Machina’s

The new science fiction thriller Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is one of the year’s most intelligent and thought-provoking films, full of heady concepts like the Turing test and Mary’s Room. For Garland, exploring those ideas is part of the appeal of science fiction.

“Sci-fi gives these incredible permissions to talk about whatever you want,” he says in Episode 147 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s not embarrassed about big ideas.”

Garland, who started out as a novelist, is frustrated at the way that literary authors often eschew big ideas out of a fear of seeming sophomoric or pretentious.

“They’re so concerned with their status,” he says. “And so they repeat these endless stories about microcosm human relationships in a marriage, or whatever it happens to be.”

Big ideas often get a chilly reception in the film world as well. While pitching Ex Machina, Garland was told flat-out by film execs that “idea movies don’t work.” To him that seems crazy. He cites films ranging from 2001 to The Thin Red Line as evidence that idea movies can be both artistically and commercially successful.

Clockwork Orange is an ideas movie,” he says. “There’s a really sophisticated set of ideas in that film, and when I leave the film I’m not thinking about visceral moments. I’m thinking about the ideas that it provoked.”

As a novelist he knows that it’s easier to convey complex ideas in a book than on film, but he also thinks that film offers a unique opportunity to capture something profound within a single moment—an image or a glance. In Ex Machina, out now, he’s tried to bring a novelistic quality to the performances, letting the characters just be themselves and not always having to spell out everything for the audience.

“Film relies much more on inference, but that’s it’s strength too,” he says. “It has this terrific way of being able to load moments that it’s also throwing away, and that’s harder in a novel.”

Listen to our complete interview with Alex Garland in Episode 147 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Alex Garland on whether he helped inspire Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:

“I have no idea if that’s true, because the thing about Ishiguro is he’s very intellectually curious and he’s very generous. And I’m not just saying that. As a young writer I sometimes used to encounter older writers, and you’d often get this incredible vibe of hostility. They didn’t like you, they don’t want younger writers coming up, they’re not into them. And with him it was exactly the opposite. … We did used to talk a lot about sci-fi. … But I honestly think he’s configured this in his mind, and it wasn’t really [because of me]. He would have written that book anyway. Because he sits outside the mainstream—within literary fiction—he does stuff that the other guys just don’t do. And he’s always been like that, right from the get-go, so I can’t appropriate that.”

Alex Garland on creative freedom:

“So I wrote this first book, The Beach. It’s all about backpackers and an attempt at a utopian society in Southeast Asia, and then I wrote a second book called The Tesseract, which took as its title a sort of four-dimensional cube—a hypercube—and the blood drained from the publisher’s face as I handed this over. It’s got largely Filipino characters, it’s set in the Philippines, and doesn’t have any of the mainstream appeal that The Beach turned out to have—rather surprisingly, from my point of view. Anyway, then I was mulling over another book, and I got sat down by someone here in New York who said, ‘You know what? I think it’s great that you tried something different, but maybe you should start thinking again about young people in a foreign location, and maybe they’re trying to set something up again.’ In other words, getting me to rewrite The Beach again, and I remember thinking, ‘I now have no respect for you, and I can never work with you again.’ So yes, that does happen, but it’s pathetic.”

Alex Garland on underrated sci-fi:

“I remember people were very rude about 2010, because it came after 2001. At the time lots of people said 2001 was no good, but by then the world had decided it was a masterpiece, and so then 2010 is a sacrilege. And actually I remember watching it thinking, ‘I’m really digging this movie.’ … I’ll tell you a film I saw that I knew nothing about—I knew nothing—and was blown away. One of my favorite ever film-watching experiences was Starship Troopers, the first one. I just knew nothing, it was hardly promoted in the UK. I don’t know why I went in there. Maybe it’s because it said ‘starship.’ I have no idea. I didn’t know the source material, I just knew nothing about it. And a few minutes in I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is the best film I’ve ever seen,’ and consciously enjoyed every second of the film from beginning to end, and just walked out totally exhilirated.”

Alex Garland on adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation:

“[The script is] definitely not holding up a mirror to the novel, but it’s true to my subjective response to the novel—it’s true to what I responded to and got out of the novel. … There was a tone in there that to me related to what I used to feel reading certain kinds of Ballard novels. It’s not in any way derivative, it’s very much its own thing, but what it made me feel was very much like what I used to feel reading The Drowned World or The Crystal World, which were Ballard novels that took a strange central conceit and then sort of exist within them, like ‘the world is turning to crystal.’ There’s a sort of dream-state aspect of that that I found incredibly alluring and hypnotic, and that’s what pulled me into Annihilation.”

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