There's a lot going on here. Alex Garland's got the directorial debut of 2015 so far with Ex Machina, a movie so overflowing with cool, thoughtful ideas and imagery, you just want the story to keep going and going. It doesn't. But don't worry, the ending is just as good. Ex Machina is this year's Under the Skin, a sexually-charged exploration of human nature in the shape of a gorgeous sci-fi thriller.
Garland, the English author and screenwriter behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine, knows how to scare us. His talent for building urgency on the page translates to his work behind the camera. Ex Machina is paced brilliantly, composed of claustrophobic "Sessions" with its ravishing heroine/femme fatale: Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava is brilliant, beautiful, cunning, and she is a robot.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a chance to work with his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), for a week. The guy's a boy genius-turned-billionaire who owns a Google-like company and lives in a futuristic compound like a Bond villain. He's also just built a world-changing artificial intelligence and he wants Caleb to Turing test it — to determine if the machine exhibits intelligence indistinguishable from a human.
First Session: Caleb and Ava make small talk. Immediately, the young man is smitten. "Fucking amazing" is how Caleb describes her and we nod in agreement. Her design is an homage to Spielberg, but nothing in A.I. Artificial Intelligence is as sexually-charged as Ava. Every curve of Vikander's body is on display and the Swedish actress is combustible with her longing glances and doe eyes. Her American accent wavers a bit, but she displays the right amount of inhumanity for such a challenging robotic role.
She wins Caleb's heart by confiding in him when a power surge kills the various recording devices cataloging the Turing test. Ava says Nathan "can't be trusted" and Caleb immediately senses she needs his help. As the week goes on, tester and testee spend every day together under the watchful eye of Nathan, or "God" as he likes being called. Ava shows Caleb her drawings. She tries on dresses for him and they bond as naturally as a couple falling in love. But the fortress is made to keep Ava locked inside and when he discovers Nathan's plans for her, he makes a decision that changes everything.
The trick of Ex Machina is in its profound story. In many ways, the movie is a kind of Turing test itself. Is Ava a beautifully-rendered vision of science-fiction or a redundant microcosm of how women are treated in film? It's hard to believe the story would work the same way if Caleb and Ava's genders were reversed. HAL never tried to seduce Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but film history is filled with female sex bots, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to Her. Caleb only responds to Ava based on his own predilections as a heterosexual male, and we do the same based on our own histories. The film is a sociological case study and so is watching it.
Visually, Ex Machina shines with the sleek futuristic sheen only money can buy. The billionaire's hideout is an arresting setting. And the contrasts are striking: the modern compound in the middle of sprawling nature, the CEO and his employee (they even look dissimilar), and Ava and, well, everything. The look of the film begins with her. Where could something so beautiful be constructed? The production design must be worthy of the costumes and it is.
More images and details: Ava's invisible skin, Nathan's immaculate laboratory, a wall of a thousand Post-It notes, waterfalls, tin key cards, and the haunting score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Ex Machina is admirably inventive and rich in the language of the movies. The atmosphere of the film will suck you in and the story will keep you enraptured. Alex Garland has created truly memorable character in Ava, but it's what she does that will make you remember her.