Suspenseful, stylish, and refreshingly smart, Alex Garland's Ex Machina is the sci-fi film we've been waiting for. Garland made a name for himself writing movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, but this is his directorial debut — a chance for him to execute his own vision on screen — and he ably takes on the challenge, forging an impressive first feature that tackles the idea of artificial intelligence with some actual intelligence.
While the rest of Hollywood attempts to tackle similar concepts on a large scale (I'm looking at you, Chappie), Garland dials it back and keeps it simple, relying on a small but immensely talented cast and only one location to bring his story to life. As the film opens we meet Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented coder at a fictional Google-esque tech company called Blue Book who has won a contest to meet the reclusive founder of the company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is flown out to Nathan's mysterious private estate in the middle of a remote forest, where he's ostensibly there to basically bro out with him for a week. But the highly modern estate isn't just where Nathan lives - it's also where he works, and where he's been developing Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot with artificial intelligence.
We quickly discover the real reason for Caleb's visit is that Nathan wants him to give Ava a Turing test to ascertain whether or not she can pass for human. But as the week progresses, we slowly figure out that Nathan's motives might not be as pure as he indicates, and Caleb gets pulled further into an emotionally complex puzzle as he starts to develop real feelings for Ava.
Gleeson, who has a nice everyman quality about him that's already been put to good use in films like About Time and Frank, is excellent as the audience surrogate, navigating his way through Nathan's maze with the kind of wonder and believable naivete necessary for this role. Vikander's Ava is impressive, robotic in motion but emotionally involved; she's a character you can't ever quite get a read on. Is she developing her own romantic feelings for Caleb, or is she manipulating him? As their relationship builds, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell, lending the movie a nice slow burn of suspense.
But the standout performance comes from Isaac, who plays the extremely unlikable Nathan. We immediately know something is off about him, and he's the kind of guy you'd probably hate to spend time with: he's insanely smart (he developed the coding for Blue Book when he was only 13), he has a major superiority complex (not to mention a God complex), and when he doesn't have a drink in his hand, he's lifting weights or boxing. He's not only hyper-intelligent, he's aggro about it. But despite of all of that, he was my favorite character to watch because Isaac gives him a hilarious attitude and a vulgarity that makes you love to loathe him. It's one of the defining roles of his career thus far, and it should be interesting to see how his Star Wars character (Isaac and Gleeson co-star in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) stacks up.
The visual effects are so good that you don't even think twice about them, and Ava — who has a human face, arms, and legs, but a transparent torso and skull full of spinning gears and flashing lights — is one hundred percent believable. I'm sure the VFX team had their hands full making her look as realistic as she does, but it's a credit to them that their hard work pays off in a way that makes it look invisible. Garland's script is very funny (a bizarre dance sequence is a highlight), but also examines classic science fiction tropes with a real understanding of character and drama. The suspense intensifies as we slowly grasp more of the characters' motives, and the movie kept me guessing the whole time as it heads toward its shocking conclusion.
If you're the type of person who enjoys smart science fiction on a small scale, this one's for you. Ex Machina certainly passes the test: it's one of 2015's best films.