In the history of the movies, there may be no robot more alluring, more eerily fascinating to look at, than Ava (Alicia Vikander), the star and subject of “Ex Machina.” The movie, a sleek, provocative sci-fi drama that keeps threatening to step gently into horror, concerns a reclusive Internet billionaire (Oscar Isaac) who invites a lowly employee, a programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to his lab/home/bunker in the middle of nowhere. There he unveils a top-secret project: an artificially intelligent humanoid computer. Caleb’s job? To apply the famed Turing Test over the course of a week’s visit and ascertain whether Ava can pass for human.
Already we know the billionaire, Nathan, is playing a longer game, one possibly not to be trusted. The Turing Test, after all, involves divining the humanity (or not) of a computer (or human) hidden from the tester’s sight. Ava may be separated from Caleb by the high-impact glass that walls off her suite of rooms from the rest of the house, but she’s present in full view: an astonishing creation of metallic mesh skin, pneumatic limbs, a see-through midriff within which robot innards glow and churn, and the face of a curious angel. Even non-programmers in the audience may be forgiven for being held rapt. As for Caleb, he’s a goner.
The film’s writer-director, Alex Garland, has toiled as a screenwriter in the smarter corners of movie sci-fi: “28 Days Later” (2002), “Sunshine” (2007), “Dredd” (2012). He has a production designer (Mark Digby) and a cinematographer (Rob Hardy) who help him fashion this dark fable into a tastefully swooning visual trip. Nathan’s house, built into the side of a hillside and outfitted with toys and electronic gadgetry even Steve Jobs never imagined, is effectively a cyborg itself. The score by composer Ben Salisbury and ex-Portishead shoe-gazer Geoff Barrow, gleams with soothing mechanical melodies and rhythms. “Ex Machina” is as seductive as the people in it.
Except for Caleb, who is our representative from the Land of Normal and who Gleeson (the son of actor Brendan Gleeson and the fast-rising star of last year’s “About Time” and “Frank”) plays with the wariness and fire of a Millennial idealist who knows he’s smart and only hopes he’s smart enough. As with Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), this movie pokes around in the schlumpy emotional needs we humans ask our technology to fulfill. It just does so with suspense rather than sympathy.
“Ex Machina” takes place almost entirely in the cloistered spaceship of Nathan’s house, among three characters (four, if you count Sonoya Mizuno as the billionaire’s unspeaking attendant). In the seesawing power dynamic of creator and student, the movie resembles nothing so much as a high-tech remake of “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” those stage-to-film two-handers of the 1970s and ’80s. The dramatic motor is the same: Who’s outfoxing whom? Is Caleb Ava’s savior or Nathan’s dupe?
Isaac (“A Most Violent Year,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) continues to amaze in subtle and sneaky ways. With his burly-man’s beard and air of casual hip, Nathan strains to act like a bro — he’s Caleb’s new best pal. At the same time, his heavy drinking hints at the desperation that can come from being king of an empty universe. “Ex Machina” isn’t quite “Citizen Kane” for an era of Internet tycoons, but it suggests that that’s not such a bad idea.
The pivot on which “Ex Machina” swings, of course, is Ava, and Vikander — a Swedish actress seen in “Anna Karenina” (2012) and “The Fifth Estate” (2013) — has a placid inscrutability that can pass for either naivete or artful manipulation. Rather than a female Frankenstein, she’s this movie’s Pinocchio, a mechanical puppet who aches to be a real girl. At least, that’s what she says.
It’s in that gender switch, though, that “Ex Machina” curdles from slyly bleak to strangely bitter in its final scenes, possibly revealing more of Alex Garland’s ideas about women — forget about robots — than he intends. A note of paranoia creeps in that nods to classic film noir on one hand and baroque misogyny on the other. Or maybe this is just Garland’s dank idea of what men do when they’re left to their own devices: Create dream mates from the flayed skin of their fantasies.
A disturbing and beguiling premise, to be sure. But I doubt any super-intelligent machine, no matter how “female” she’s programmed to be, would choose to wear heels if she didn’t actually have to.