Four stars (out of four)
R (graphic nudity, language, sexual references, some violence)
From Asimov, to “Blade Runner,” to “The Terminator,” makers of science-fiction have long been obsessed with the concept of artificial intelligence and what such a technological development would portend for the human race.
Evolution? Extinction? A combination of both?
In keeping with this storied tradition, A.I. beings good and evil are front and center on the big screen this summer.
In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Tony Stark spawns the ultimate peacekeeping program, only to see his creation go haywire and try to wipe out the planet via makeshift meteor.
In July, “Terminator Genisys” reboots the now classic James Cameron thriller about an apocalypse sparked by machines bent on either killing or protecting humans.
Neither of these films, however, serve up a vision of artificial intelligence as chilling, clever or convincing as “Ex Machina,” the impressive debut film of writer-director Alex Garland.
Garland’s A.I. isn’t the typical stuff of Hollywood sci-fi, masterminding mass destruction by robot army, monologuing and generally blowing stuff up.
No, the artificial brain at the controls of “Ex Machina” is more insidious, wielding its mastery of the human mind as a weapon. It is skilled in the power of manipulation and that’s all the power it needs.
Garland is no slouch when it comes to sci-fi. Best known for authoring the novel “The Beach,” he penned Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later,” wrote the “Dredd” remake and adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” for the screen.
“Ex Machina” wears the suffocating shroud of hushed dread that adorns his previous work, but it elevates the filmmaker’s already strong pedigree to another level. It is the sharpest, most original effort of his career so far.
Garland’s direction is refreshingly lean and sleek, wasting no time in establishing an intriguing premise and a setting that drips with atmosphere.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for a Google-like search engine, learns he’s been selected as the winner of a mysterious contest. His prize is a week at the remote home of his wealthy employer, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).
As he delightedly arrives by helicopter to Nathan’s vast, stunning mountain estate, the audience shares his awkward position of ignorance and apprehension. What kind of man lives here, amidst the surreal majesty of glaciers, waterfalls and pines, in a compound of the pristine, minimalist architecture you only ever see in movies, a cold, glorious monument of glass, stone and long, dimly-lit corridors?
We’re soon introduced to Caleb’s host, who manages to make his guest — and us — feel simultaneously welcome and deeply uncomfortable as he ushers the young programmer around the eerily unpopulated outpost that will serve as his home for the next seven days.
Nathan isn’t what Caleb or we expected. Part Steve Jobs, part frat boy, he’s actually, if you’ll pardon the expression, kind of a tool. He drinks heavily, says “dude” a lot and displays confounding mood swings. He invites his guest to be a part of his latest research project, but only after signing a daunting nondisclosure agreement.
When Caleb balks at this arrangement, Nathan reveals he’s made an unprecedented breakthrough in the field of artificial intelligence. He’d like his eager, young employee to participate in the Turing test, designed to determine whether an A.I. creation exhibits behavior indistinguishable from human intelligence.
So begin Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a strikingly beautiful, uncannily lifelike humanoid who has never ventured beyond the confines of her glass-walled room.
Caleb is immediately astounded by her abilities, but when it comes to discussing the science behind this man-made woman, Nathan proves strangely evasive. He’d rather talk about how Caleb “feels” about Ava, but defining the answer to that question proves frustratingly slippery.
Soon other questions arise, like what’s up with the frequent power outages that strike Nathan’s seemingly impregnable mountain stronghold? Why aren’t there any lab technicians or staff in residence? What’s with the key cards that at once grant and restrict Caleb’s access to the facility?
What does Ava think of Caleb? Who’s really being tested here? And who is Nathan’s oddly compliant, sushi-making sexpot of a personal assistant, really?
From the beginning, “Ex Machina” ravels and unravels its mysteries with the unsettling, unbearable tension of a finely crafted horror movie. Garland is skilled at keeping the viewer in a constant state of uneasiness, using every resource at his disposal.
This includes the film’s marvelous production design, which blends the organic and the artificial in ways that echo the film’s theme of humanity vs. technology — the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway provides the jaw-dropping backdrop for Nathan’s mad scientific endeavors — as well as the visual effects and sound design.
With her cherubic face, curvaceous mesh body and vaguely eerie whirrings, Ava is at once alluring and dismaying, and completely believable as the revolutionary discovery Caleb proclaims her to be. Much of the credit for this belongs to Vikander, who captures Ava’s precise, graceful movements and formal, soothing speech patterns while masking her intentions.
Gleeson and Isaac — who will appear together again later this year in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” — engage in an entertaining, ever shifting game of one-upmanship with all the intensity and intimacy of a stage play.
Gleeson’s unassuming likability goes a long way toward disarming the moviegoer, while Isaac injects a bit of weird humor into his character’s darkness.
What I was most surprised by and love the most about “Ex Machina” is its refreshing, incredibly shrewd feminist spin. This is a film that has unexpected and profound things to say about the female mind and body and the way some men see them.
The unpredictable, profoundly satisfying finale turns cliche Hollywood romantic tropes on their head and makes a bold statement about the objectification of women.
And it’s the first time in a long time that the possibility of artificial intelligence actually scared me.
If you dare, go to ava-sessions.com, where you can interact with Ava. She’ll even draw your portrait.