If you're like me, you tend to shy away from science fiction. Getting invested on any make-believe plane is difficult enough without all the chilly technical mumbo-jumbo required to craft a futuristic but still-plausible setting. Plus there's always a Big Idea of some kind, usually a commentary on man's hubris, which rarely results in anything but a downer. This is why I'm grateful for novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland, who typically infuses his sci-fi with humor, heart, and action yet refuses to dumb it down. Best known for his excellent collaborations with Danny Boyle (2002's "28 Days Later" and 2007's "Sunshine"), Garland finally takes a turn in the director's chair with "Ex Machina," a smart, sleek thriller that sexes up the concept of artificial intelligence via an exploration of the age-old power struggle between men and women.
The first few minutes of the film are a master class in efficiency, setting up the story in an economical fashion. Soon our ostensible hero, a programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, "About Time"), has arrived at the remote home of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac, "A Most Violent Year"), a brilliant internet billionaire who has surrounded himself with glass, stone, technology, and a lot of wilderness. The mild-mannered Caleb has been selected to spend a week assisting the arrogantly charismatic Nathan, and when Caleb learns that the project involves testing both the intellectual and emotional quotients of artificial intelligence, he geeks out appropriately. Then Caleb meets Nathan's exquisite new achievement, Ava.
As played by knockout Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, Ava is doe eyes and diodes, gentle curves and metal coils, all encased in an alluringly transparent female shell. "Ex Machina" unfolds as a series of duets, between Caleb and Ava, and between Caleb and Nathan, the latter taking on more passive-aggressive weight as the former develops an air of romance. (Luckily, Ava's creator thought of everything: "If you wanted to screw her, mechanically speaking, you could, and she'd enjoy it.") Nathan has been monitoring the sessions with Caleb and Ava by camera, and it's during a brief power outage that Ava shifts things into gear with four quick, quiet words to Caleb: "You shouldn't trust him."
Naturally, there's also the "Frankenstein"-meets-"Pygmalion" dynamic between Ava and Nathan. "Is it strange to have made something that hates you?" she wonders of him, basically proving her sentience with one sentence. Garland's meditative script finds his leads chewing on modern-day ethics and realities (you may, for instance, think twice the next time you decide to type any ol' thing into a search engine) before it twists into a suspenseful round of cat-and-mouse. And it's not surprising that someone who's written such visceral films knows what he wants as a director; most of this chamber piece is beautifully framed two-shots, with the spacious but minimally appointed home used to claustrophobic effect. "Ex Machina" would actually make a killer stage play.
Oh, throw in a little "Weird Science," too: "Ex Machina" is surprisingly funny, with most of the zingers courtesy of the deadpan Isaac, who is lately establishing himself as one of the best of his generation. Swarthy and muscled, with a scar at the top of his shaved head through which his brains might erupt, Isaac's blunt, fast-talking Nathan stands in stark contrast to the lanky and fair Gleeson, whose Caleb is our surrogate into Nathan's paranoid existence. We come by information about Nathan as Caleb does, puzzling out disturbing motives that begin to seem less based in the quest for knowledge than they do in the need for control. Just don't think too hard about the logistics of Nathan's largely solitary life, such as things like groceries and housekeeping. It ain't a documentary.
But delete all the technological stuff, and you've basically got "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Body Heat," or some other film noir in which a beautiful, but possibly manipulative, woman pits a gullible chump against a controlling brute in the name of self-preservation. In this instance, however, the question is whether Ava actually has a self to preserve, and it's easy to see how Caleb might get caught up in her as she flirts, pouts, and allows Caleb to project his knight-in-shining-armor fantasies onto what is essentially a next-level blowup doll. And Vikander totally sells it: her Ava blends the languid grace of a dancer with tiny whirring movements and nearly imperceptible reactions that nonetheless speak volumes. It's the polar opposite of showy, yet she's mesmerizing.
For an interview with director Alex Garland by Adam Lubitow, click here.