By Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Oscar Isaac has launched a first-rate film career by creating characters nobody wants as their imaginary best friend. Over the past 10 years, as villainous King John in Ridley Scott’s retelling of the Robin Hood legend, a sneaky CIA type in the latest Bourne film, a vile asylum orderly in Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” or the tragicomic title character in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” he’s played guys you’d cross the street to avoid.
OK, the Juilliard-trained Isaac was Joseph in Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story,” but he’s usually the go-to guy for nasty.
Still, none of this would prepare you for how masterfully Isaac unleashes a new monster in “Ex Machina.” He plays Nathan, an arrogant tech tycoon using idealistic young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to help him evaluate a beautiful, humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), that Nathan has created. Caleb must determine whether the slinky android is cunning and creative — and more important, who is testing whom.
“Ex Machina” raises a question that films have been asking since we met robotic Maria in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Will droids set goals higher than obeying the humans who created them? It’s a query as important for scientists and entrepreneurs as filmmakers. In January, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, founder of the electric car company Tesla and the planetary exploration firm Space X, signed an open letter warning that without safeguards on intelligent machines, mankind could meet a dark future. “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,” said Musk, often regarded as a real-life Tony Stark, at a symposium last fall. “In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out.”
That’s the sort of caution Isaac’s intelligent, aggressive alpha male Nathan would never follow. In a phone interview, Isaac said he channeled Kubrick for the role, from the legendary filmmaker’s reclusive lifestyle to his savant confidence. It can be as easy to meet brilliant, difficult people in Hollywood as it is in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, he said.
“There’s something about people in power. Sometimes when people amass that amount of wealth and notoriety it can definitely mess with their heads. A sense of isolation can occur.”
Kubrick, he said, “created things that were so beautiful and there was also something mysterious about them. I read a lot of interviews he had done when he was younger: I just loved the cadence of his voice and how smart he was, something clearly self-taught about him.”
He and Garland experimented with several different looks for the character, including a long-haired scalp resembling “a caveman creating fire,” but Isaac ultimately returned to his inspiration, copying Kubrick’s full beard, sparse hair and owl-eye spectacles. “There’s something severe and iconic about him and a little off. When we put the glasses on, that pulled the whole thing together. Half bastard, half professor, a strange mix.”
Predatory characters come naturally to Isaac, who began his film career in fifth grade, playing bad guys in karate films he made with his classmates.
“I think Nathan is a little more complex than the karate bad guys,” he said, laughing. “It’s a part that grows the second time you view the film. Although he’s being manipulative, he is always telling the truth. He’s not lying. I never thought of playing him as a villain” but as a calculator, always showing Caleb that he is far above him.
Isaac considers the eventual arrival of artificial intelligence with a mixture of willing anticipation and worry.
“I’m eager about what one could create,” he said. “We already have AI, though not strong AI. But you know, you have your phone, things that intuit what you want, search engines, all that. But I also think that things we create we tend to lose control of pretty quickly, whether they be machines, or technology, or economic systems, systems of government. We cede our freedom quite easily. We’re not always able to control what we create, and that’s to our detriment, at least so far. I don’t really have any reason to believe that will be any different with artificial competence.”
“Ex Machina” is the directorial debut by screenwriter Alex Garland, who revived the zombie movie with his script for Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” He shot this film at a remote site in Norway that Isaac called “stunning, Promethean, like Scotland on steroids.”
Isaac became a film fan at age 3 when his father took him to a theater screening “The Return of the Jedi.” He sees “Ex Machina” as an equally good entry in the genre, and was thrilled to land a role in the upcoming “Star Wars” sequels along with his “Ex Machina” co-star Gleeson and his “Llewyn Davis” friend Adam Driver. Better yet, they were joined by Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
“It’s fantastic meeting them,” Isaac said. “Not only to see them and meet them as people but to see them as those characters again.” For a person who started out as a very young fanboy to join the project was “quite magical. It’s a mixture of playing and a high-pressure situation. But in some ways you rely more on that childlike feeling, you know? Just being in action there was so good.”