Alex Garland's Ex Machina probes the eerie menace of artificial intelligence and makes it seem even eerier. The picture's mood is hooded and unsettling, and its subject—the A.I. future that's hurtling toward us ever more rapidly—exudes a slow, screw-tightening horror that creeps off the screen and settles into your head.
The story is naturally set in computer world. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer with Bluebook, the world's most powerful search engine, is summoned to the home of his billionaire boss, the shadowy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). His remote estate is a temple of barren luxury, where Nathan—a strange man, both chummy and sinister—is attended only by a mysterious, unspeaking Japanese woman named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). There's a research lab on the premises, and it turns out that Nathan has been very busy in it.
The inscrutable tech mogul tells Caleb that he has created a true artificial intelligence, or at least he thinks so. Its name is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a slender robot with transparent limbs and a beautiful face plate. Bateman wants Caleb to administer a Turing test to determine whether Ava has true human qualities. Can she actually think and feel, or is she only imitating those facilities with state-of-the-art digital precision? Caleb sets right to work, and as his interview sessions with Ava progress, he is drawn into a labyrinth of deceit and treachery that is far above his pay grade.
Ava is disarmingly straightforward: "You can see that I'm a machine," she tells Caleb in their first encounter. Soon, though, it is she who is quizzing Caleb, and perceiving his unease. ("Your micro-expressions are telegraphing discomfort.") Nathan monitors their interviews remotely, but puzzling power cuts intermittently shut down his surveillance. At these points, Ava has much more to impart, mainly about Nathan. "He isn't your friend," she warns Caleb. "You shouldn't trust anything he says." But should he trust her? And who should we trust?
Garland, here directing his first movie, is a specialist in brain-teasing sci-fi. (He wrote Danny Boyle's radiant Sunshine and also scripted Mark Romanek's harrowing Never Let Me Go.) As a filmmaker, he seems fully formed. Ex Machina, which he also wrote, has a rigorously controlled atmosphere. The gray walls, chilly glass partitions and muted lighting of Nathan's somber home are only occasionally aired out with brief scenes set amid the leafy woods and icy mountains nearby. (The movie was partly shot in Norway.) The director has a rare aptitude for intelligent digital effects, too. Ava, with her glowing mechanical innards, isn't a showy CGI creation—she's entrancing. Garland is also adept at structure and pacing, and the story, with its faintly creepy sexual undertow, keeps us off-balance until very near the end.
The actors form a fine chamber ensemble. Isaac's coiled intensity is ideal for Nathan, a man with nobody's best interests at heart. And Gleeson is unsurprisingly skillful at conveying Caleb's clueless innocence (and his own peculiar flaws). But the picture really belongs to the ethereal Vikander, whose robot girl is a disquieting blend of machine-like passivity and all-too-human calculation. "What will happen to me if I fail your test?" she asks Caleb. "Do you think I might be switched off? Do you have people who might switch you off?"