Almost Human: "Ex Machina" an accomplished, coolly provocative sci-fi rep

Ex Machina (2015) 
108 min., rated R.

Throughout cinema, dating back to Fritz Lang's expressionistic 1927 benchmark "Metropolis," there have been countless films about artificial intelligence and sentience — 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1987's "RoboCop," 2001's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," 2013's "Her" and, most recently, "Chappie," just to name a few. What's one more? British novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland, who wrote Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later…" and "Sunshine," as well as "Never Let Me Go," graduates to the director's chair with his auspicious debut, "Ex Machina," and what makes it even more stunning is that it's too confident to ever feel like one's first hand behind the camera. A coolly stimulating, thematically provocative and heady piece of science fiction, this is what Wally Pfister's "Transcendence" dreamt of being. It's a thinking man's sci-fi without being too technical, a slick visual feast without being empty, and a slow-burn thriller without being rote, plodding and dumbed-down. 

When talented New Haven coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is randomly selected in an office lottery at his Google-like search-engine company Blue Book, he has no idea what he's about to do. He's asked to spend a week at his reclusive boss' compound in the remote snowy mountains that can only be accessed by helicopter. Landing outside near the subterranean estate, Caleb enters and meets the bearded Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has brought the programmer to complete a "Turing Test" in his underground research facility, each room requiring a security card. This means that he will examine a female A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to gauge whether or not Nathan's creation is capable of human thought. In his early sessions with Ava, separated by glass, Caleb asks her questions to determine how close to human she really is and becomes drawn to this beautiful robot, but during a power cut, he realizes he's not sure who to trust machine or the machine's creator. There's more than meets the eye here.

Writer-director Alex Garland isn't working with any ideas that we haven't seen before—undiscovered originality is hard to come by after all—but he actually has something to say and knows how to say it. Slowly but surely building a sinister, quietly hypnotic mood of unease and portent not unlike last year's mesmerizing "Under the Skin," which also raised questions of what it meant to be human in an alien woman's eyes, "Ex Machina" teasingly and methodically wraps one up in its wave of paranoia and manipulation, as well as its ideas of God-playing science, human sexuality and male domination. If man creates smarter, stronger machines to simulate human beings, what is stopping them from making mankind extinct? It's not incidental that Ava is a man-made woman and that Nathan also has an obedient Japanese servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn't understand or speak a lick of English. By design, "Ex Machina" is chilly, austere and only seemingly predictable until it begins resetting one's expectations that of the characters and narrative trajectory. 

In substance, this is a spare, claustrophobic chamber drama with four principal characters. Such a charismatic everyman in 2013's "About Time," Domhnall Gleeson is terrific here in darker climate as Caleb, his boyish, good-natured visage relatably making him the audience surrogate. Proving once again to be a versatile character actor who can do anything, Oscar Isaac is fascinating and deliciously enigmatic as Nathan. Spending his nights getting wasted and then recovering in the morning by drinking a lot of antioxidants and working out vigorously, Isaac's Nathan is imbued with wicked humor and off-kilter behavior, like a random, indelibly loony disco dance with Kyoko that will be hard to forget. Finally, it would be a crime to not give credit to Alicia Vikander. As Ava, she is an alluring specimen, adopting the robotic body language perfectly, in the way she tilts her head, and gives an unexpectedly layered performance of vulnerability and strength. Is she a victim or a villain? Saying anything more would be a spoiler.

From the cinematography to the production design, visual effects and music score, "Ex Machina" looks and sounds exquisite. Like the architecture of Nathan's steely glass-and-concrete compound realized by production designer Mark Digby, every frame is sleek, sterile, precise and quixotic through Rob Hardy's lensing. Shot on a relatively low budget in Norway, it looks like a million bucks. The creation of Ava is simply staggering, evoking the seamlessly polished mastery that went into making Alicia Vikander look like an unfinished android made of steel and wires. Also, the score by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is piercing and rattlingly creepy. With Alex Garland coming to the scene as a screenwriter first, his screenplay is intelligently crafted with purposely earned plot turns existing for themes that are set up from the get-go and surprising without feeling like cheats. After the tension has been ratcheted up for the film's climax, there's something equally menacing and touchingly hopeful to the open-ended, albeit disturbingly prescient, conclusion that opens up a can of worms. Clearly, Garland thinks highly of his audience and trusts and respects their intelligence. Close to a triumph, "Ex Machina" is increasingly unsettling and accomplished, and for that, it will be hard to not absorb it for days after watching it and want to take in repeated viewings.

Grade: A -