Thoughtful science fiction is as rare in film these days as black-and-white or a double feature, something parents fascinate their children with as exotica from a different moviegoing time.
First-time director Alex Garland brilliantly brings the past into the present with the near-future tale “Ex Machina,” a stark but dazzling meditation on intelligence, consciousness and morality that discreetly uses special effects in service of story, dialogue and character. What a concept.
Oscar Isaac (”A Most Violent Year,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) is Nathan, a Steve Jobs-like tech tycoon who lives in beautiful isolation somewhere at the edge of the world, the location of which is never named. But he’s not just relaxing. Nathan has big ideas and gives one of his employees the opportunity to spend several days working with him at his compound.
That’s how low-level Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, “Unbroken”) finds himself inside Nathan’s sleek surroundings, feeling out of his depth and comfort zone. He discovers that Nathan has created artificial intelligence in the form of a female robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander, “Seventh Son”) and has brought him there to test Ava, to see how she responds to a human who is not her creator.
The relationship among the three of them is what makes “Ex Machina” spark, as it veers from inquisitive to controlling to sexual to hostile as they feel each other out. The film ripples with unpredictably as the viewer is kept guessing about motivations and outcome until the final frame.
Garland, best-known as a novelist (“The Beach”) and screenwriter (“28 Days Later”), deals with big issues and big ideas about life and living, so the dialogue-heavy “Ex Machina” could have been as subtle as a bag of hammers. But his script elegantly dances around such pitfalls and ultimately echoes the feel of the best episodes of such classic TV series as “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits.” There are even welcome touches of sly humor; Isaac’s dance scene alone is enough for the price of admission.
The performances are outstanding, from Isaac as a man who may be teetering on the edge of madness, to Gleeson as a callow young man finding his voice and Vikander as someone coming into her own.
Also worth noting is the film’s look: Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have created a seductively claustrophobic world and Ava’s appearance – at once appealingly human and coldly robotic – is a marvel.
“Ex Machina” may not just turn out to be one of the best science-fiction films of the year but one of the best films period.
Rated: R for graphic nudity, strong language, sexual references, some violence
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Director: Alex Garland