Ex Machina is an egghead thriller with a scary selling point: Unlike Liam Neeson shooting up half of Boston, this actually could be taking place right now. It's a smart film about the shrinking divide between man and robot. It's also a hoot, an anti-comedy where all of the jokes double as threats, and vice versa. Ex Machina is the directorial debut of sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland, who penned the better-than-it-should-be Dredd and the three-quarters-perfect Sunshine. If he didn't keep things so handsome and confident, it could play as camp. As is, it's the film version of an iPhone: small, expensive-looking, and a touch overhyped — plus an addictive sales pitch for whatever Garland makes next.
Our hero is computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a nervous 26-year-old smartypants who's won a company contest for a weeklong trip to his boss' cabin in the woods. The place is a million-dollar bunker carved into a cliff and buried so deep in the forest that Caleb has to helicopter over a closed rank of green trees. It's all glass and stone, like the centerfold pinup of Paranoid Environmentalist Living. When Caleb enters, his boss, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), scans the slender redhead and concludes, "You're freaked out because it's all supercool." That's Ex Machina's tone in one line: a clever and contradictory mix of truth and bluster.
Nathan is a billionaire genius with an ego to match. At 13, he invented the search engine Bluebook, a web goliath with a lot of vowels in common with you-know-what. (Garland would swear it's just coincidence that Google cofounder Larry Page built his own 6,000-square-foot ecolodge.) Isaac keys into that internet-age mix of artificial inauthenticity — he's fantastic and funny even though we're too freaked out to laugh. Nathan wears wifebeaters, works out, eats kale, and stocks his house with expensive artisanal booze that he chugs every night until he collapses. When he tries to sound charming, he's a transparent jerk. Handing Caleb a keycard that permits entrance only into certain rooms — a modern twist on Bluebeard — Nathan waves away the weirdness by insisting the system "just makes everything easier for you" and struts off confident that he's pulled another fast one. This master of spin makes even his baldness look like a feat of testosterone — he's so macho that the hair on his head has simply taken up with his beard.
In part, Ex Machina is about today's concept of power, the kind of men even James Bond and Jason Bourne are grudgingly aware actually rule the world. Those heroes might get rid of one Nathan, but there's a thousand other tiny titans just like him slurping oysters and plotting their next success. This Nathan's new project is an intelligent robot named Ava (the symmetrically perfect Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), who has big boobs, a see-through stomach, and a child's curiosity about the world beyond her locked living quarters. We're curious too about that painful-looking skull-level crack in her Plexiglas, but first, Nathan wants Caleb to chat with Ava to see if she passes the Turing Test — that is, can her mind pass for a human's? Murmurs Caleb: "If you've created a conscious machine, it's not the history of man. It's the history of gods." Naturally, Nathan misremembers his quote as, "You're not a man, you're God."
With the exception of Nathan's silent servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), this is a tidy, three-character personality clash between people who, in any other film, would each be The Smart One. (Even Nathan's hangovers segue to a joke about the Theory of Relativity.) Crammed together, they jockey for respect. Nathan is confident that Caleb will eventually give Ava his thumbs-up. After all, to program her, Nathan hacked into every cell phone on Earth to study human behavior, which he describes as "failed, imperfect, chaotic" — i.e., near-impossible to design.
Garland is doing the same thing. He's analytical, not emotional. The film keeps us at a remove, asking us too to observe and deduce. But Caleb has a harder time staying logical. As Ava and Caleb begin to bond, she covers her machinery with girlish dresses and thick, almost fetishistic wool socks. Vikander's posture is so erect and her balletic walk so precise that she's convincing as a machine who's convincing as a human — she lets us understand why Caleb almost forgets about her circuitry even as she reminds us to stay alert. Eventually, she'll ask Caleb a question he's afraid to answer: What will Nathan do with her if Caleb decides her wiring isn't perfect? The answer is inevitable. But the route Ex Machina takes to get there is full of fun detours — robot nudity, disco dancing, digressions on the importance of Jackson Pollock — that celebrate Garland's own imperfect chaos, an achievement worth applause.