The featured creature in Alex Garland's Ex Machina scarcely resembles a monster, but appearances repeatedly deceive in this digital-age Frankenstein, keeping us ever off-kilter and in doubt. Although Ava (Alicia Vikander), a disturbingly seductive robot designed by uber-programmer Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), quickly wins the sympathies of both the audience and our everyman surrogate, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), the film delights in upending expectations: What seems starkly black-and-white shades into an infinitude of grays.
As much psychological thriller as science fiction, the film creates an immediate sense of unease and then almost imperceptibly escalates the tension. An employee of search-engine giant Blue Book — an even more world-dominant Google, if that's actually possible — Caleb wins a contest to visit the isolated redoubt of Nathan, the company's founder. Helicoptered into the Alaskan wilderness, a discombobulated Caleb awkwardly trundles his roller bag alongside a river to Nathan's door, which closes quietly behind him with an ominous finality. Caleb soon discovers the real reason for his visit: Far from casually hanging with the boss for a week, he's to administer a "Turing test" to Ava, determining whether her artificial intelligence can be distinguished from human consciousness.
Essentially a series of alternating dialogues, with Caleb toggling between intimate sessions with Ava and fraught conversations with Nathan, Ex Machina places a heavy burden on its actors, and they expertly shoulder the weight. Isaac is especially compelling: His Nathan exhibits a superficial just-another-dude bonhomie — "Have a beer, bro!" — but he radiates a force field of intimidating authority and cutting intellect, slyly communicating menace behind an insincere smile. As Ava, Vikander moves with a dancer's gravity-defying ease, and even when her visible-woman electronic innards and metallic skin are hidden beneath a wig and dress, she seems eerily beyond human. Apart from her physical beauty, Ava's avid, intense gaze exerts an irresistible attraction, and Caleb yields without struggle to her eyes' tractor-beam pull. Gleeson played a similar part in last year's Frank, in thrall equally to an eccentric, charismatic genius and a hyper-confident, unattainable woman, and he's adept at retaining our rooting interest while displaying behavior that invites a measure of amused contempt. Despite Caleb's eager puppy-dog demeanor, however, Gleeson makes his character's willfulness and vanity subtly apparent: He's pursuing — at least in his blinkered, self-deluded view — an agenda of his own.
Praising the actors' work in Ex Machina in no way diminishes writer-director Garland's contributions. Originally a novelist — his first book, The Beach, has achieved iconic status in Great Britain — Garland has written primarily for film since 2002, beginning with 28 Days Later... and Sunshine, a pair of collaborations with Danny Boyle, who directed the film adaptation of The Beach. Ex Machina serves as his directorial debut, and it's remarkably assured on all levels — deftly establishing a claustrophobic atmosphere, incrementally building suspense, displaying a sophisticated design sense and fine compositional eye.
But Garland most impresses with his ability to explore compelling philosophical and sociopolitical ideas within an accessible genre framework. Discussions of what makes us human necessarily factor into any story of artificial intelligence, but Garland adds fascinating layers atop this solid base, particularly probing the ways in which the Internet is acting on us, not only robbing us of privacy but also altering us in fundamental ways.
Nathan, for example, builds Ava to spec, incorporating aspects guaranteed to appeal to Caleb based on his search profile, such as his porn preferences; his thoughts and feelings have essentially been prospected. Even more frightening, because Ava's "mind" is based on the architecture of the Blue Book search engine, she reflects contemporary trends so scarily evident in social media: She proves a narcissist, intensely curious but lacking in empathy, and blithely unconcerned with her actions' consequences.
However, let's not give the false impression that Ex Machina is a furrowed-brow exercise in deep thinking: Although it offers plenty to mull, the film satisfies on both visceral and intellectual levels. Ex Machina also provides a gratifying share of mordant laughs — e.g., the sudden outbreak of dance fever in Nathan and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a silent Japanese servant who addresses an expansive array of her master's needs. Like Ava, Ex Machina isn't quite machine-tooled perfection, but it qualifies as a surprising — and satisfying — approximation.