Domnhall Gleeson (Harry Potter, Calvary), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) and Alicia Vikander (Seventh Son) star in Ex Machina, a sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence that'll have your blood curdling and your neck hair doing what neck hair does when the heart and the stomach are in crisis. Written and directed by Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both Danny Boyle projects), this sleek and sinister production is as emotionally brutalizing as a stage play in close quarters. Though its camera lensing and production design are both unique and fully realized, Ex Machina proves that sci-fi is far more than gear and gadgetry. It's every bit as tense and fine-tuned as an Oscar drama.
In the opening moments of the film, which opens areawide on Friday, a young computer programmer named Caleb (Gleeson) is informed that he's won a coveted prize. He gets to spend a week on the remote estate of his company's founder, a digital prodigy named Nathan (Isaac), who wrote the code for Bluebook, a sort of Google on steroids, when he was only 13.
Nathan is a somewhat atypical tech tycoon. He wears wife beaters and athletic shorts around his underground mansion, which is invisibly latticed with so much fiber optic cable that the compound has been experiencing alarming power outages of late. He is also a heavy drinker and, though prone to deity complexes, appears to have no desire for the celebrity of Silicon Valley moguls. He is, on the contrary, deeply reclusive, an unflagging workhorse who has been devoting his life to the newest frontiers in artificial intelligence.
In his latest ingenious development, he's co-opted the surveillance of telecom companies and mapped human engagement with Bluebook, discovering "not what people search, but how people search" to create the most high-tech robotic brain to date. He has brought Caleb to his home, in fact, to test the capacity of the latest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander, as calculating and deftly not-quite-human as Michael Fassbender's "David" android in Prometheus).
In Nathan's tomblike basement, Caleb meets and becomes instantly drawn to Ava. As they engage in their "testing," conversations meant to determine how well and precisely Ava identifies and demonstrates human impulses (attraction, manipulation, humor, memory), Nathan watches and chronicles the emergent relationship.
And shit goes haywire. All of the relationships become questioned. Why has Nathan really brought Caleb here? What exactly has Nathan been doing with his previous A.I. iterations? What can Caleb possibly hope to achieve, on a human level, with Ava? What are Ava's motives in all this? All of these questions are dramatized as the power outages increase in frequency and duration and the suspicion grows that someone may be orchestrating the outages, that the "test" may be something else entirely. Nathan's binge-drinking produces wild and sometimes violent outbursts. Caleb, growing ever more paranoid, begins to question the motives for everything.
The result is a haunting, masterful film: First-time director with writing chops. Actors with cajones and chemistry. Production team with a clear, coherent vision. Stellar stuff.