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‘Ex Machina’ is an ultra-smart thriller

The best sci-fi usually comes in one of two flavors: spectacular or smart. It’s not that they never intermingle, of course. But when people, say, first saw “Star Wars” in 1977, it wasn’t braininess that they called up their friends and told them about. Same with Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.”

“Ex Machina” is very smart. That’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just that it’s not hiding its well-lit brain under a bushel at all. The movie is full of debates and meditations on artificial intelligence that ratchet up the suspense and excitement.

Its very title is telling you that it takes intelligence and civilization seriously. It refers to the literary term, a plot device in a story that provides a sudden and often improbable solution. It was named for the Greeks, quite literally, ending their dramas with one of their gods being lowered to the stage by backstage machinery and tidying up all the plot messes that slovenly humans created.

There are, in essence, three actors here – a reclusive, semi-Jobsian computer billionaire named Nathan; the beautiful android named Ava he created; and the employee named Caleb in Nathan’s company that he’s invited to his secluded home/laboratory to help him judge whether Ava truly has the individual consciousness that flesh-and-blood human beings have.

You know exactly where this is heading the minute you hear the movie’s basic setup. After “2001” and a few hundred other movies, you know where an ultra-smart writer – and writer/director Alex Garland is all of that – is going.

But you also know that someone is going to win a basketball or football game, too. Often, you can guess correctly which team will come out on top. That doesn’t mean that the game can’t be satisfying and terrific, even exciting, to watch.

Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, is nothing if not beautiful. But there’s nothing remotely fleshly about her looks either. Her torso is clear plastic revealing her mechanical innards. The back of her head is a plate that covers up its machine contents.

It’s the beautiful face in front of that head that’s more or less human – and the voice and the mechanical motions of her body as well as things that resemble real emotions. That’s part of the immense cunning of this film. Two men are talking about a beautiful woman who isn’t really a woman but are gauging her verisimilitude: one who created her in a long series of attempts at total android credibility and another who has been brought to a very remote place for the very purpose of becoming fascinated with her and with almost nothing else.

What’s so exhilarating about “Ex Machina” is this: It’s a writer’s film, the kind that a very good screenwriter makes in his first try at directing. It has a whole bunch of terrific ideas of a sort that a writer of other directors’ films might be saving up for when he gets a chance to make a film of his own.

Garland wrote the scripts for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Never Let Me Go.” Good films all, but films where he figured out how he would want this one to look and whom he would want doing it. Garland knew the actors who could embody what he wanted, regardless of their star quotient.

His extraordinary production designer is named Mark Digby. And the actors who get “Ex Machina” to be so much more than a clockwork orange are Vikander and especially Oscar Isaac as Nathan.

I find Isaac to be one of the more remarkable film discoveries of the past few years in movies. That the same actor played the ’60s folk singer in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the ambitious camel-hair coated businessman in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” and now this narcissistic billionaire and self-styled demi-god is stunning. Every smug minute spent in Nathan’s company is his generous gift to the unworthiness of everyone, real and mechanical, who makes up his world.

That, at first, is how Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), his clever but low-level employee actually seems to think about the time he’s been allowed to spend with his genius of a boss. When he learns that he’s the one who’s been summoned to his boss’ futuristic, completely secluded lair to discuss a phantom project, he yells at his co-workers “I win! I win!”

But from the time he enters the place through an empty vestibule he’s not in a “house” but rather “a research facility.” He’s issued a key card that gets him in some of its rooms. His subsequent time with Ava is slyly apportioned to the audience as “Ava: Session 1” and “Ava: Session 2” etc.

“I just want simple answers to simple questions,” Nathan tells Caleb about his opinions of Ava. By the time of the final “session,” there’s nothing simple about it. There are no real answers, only bigger and more horrifying questions.

Nathan drinks a lot of beer, listens to Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites as he cooks meals for Caleb and makes sly references to “Star Trek” in colloquies about artificial intelligence that are as unabashedly literate in their own sci-fi way as the philosophical debates in George Bernard Shaw.

And the production design of Nathan’s digs in the wilderness becomes a character itself in the movie.

The ending is chilly and, despite the fact that we know it’s coming, is so freshly conceived that it’s immensely satisfying.

Now that we know what Garland has been saving up in his head, it’ll be intriguing to know if he can do something this good again.


Ex Machina

3.5 stars

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domnhall Gleason

Director: Alex Garland

Running time: 108 minutes

Rating: R for graphic nudity, language, sex talk and violence.

The Lowdown: A reclusive computer billionaire plays God with his newest android and one of his smarter employees.