If you're a fellow fan of the high-tech Twilight Zone that is the BBC's Black Mirror and last year's Christmas special with Jon Hamm didn't sate your craving for more, you won't want to miss the sci-fi creep-out Ex Machina. (If you're not a fan of Black Mirror, which is currently streaming on Netflix, you clearly haven't watched it yet. Get cracking.) Like a 105-minute episode of that haunting anthology series, Alex Garland's quasi-futuristic morality fable boasts a simple premise that grows more complicated and nightmarish as it progresses. Also like a super-sized Black Mirror, the experience leaves you feeling a little shaken and happily freaked out, and kind of antsy to see it again.
Both Ex Machina and its echoes to the BBC program begin with our introduction to the software programmer Caleb, who's played by Domhnall Gleeson, the resurrected boyfriend from the excellent Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back." In the opening scene, we witness Caleb winning a contest granting him a week's stay with his company's enigmatic, über-wealthy owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a tech whiz who amassed his fortune creating the world's fastest search engine. Caleb is helicoptered to Nathan's expansive retreat, greeted by his genial host with a handshake and a beer, and told that his contest win was actually a ruse, as Caleb has been brought on a specific mission: to determine if Nathan's top-secret, artificially intelligent cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) can sufficiently pass as human.
Even before Ava's arrival, we're given subtly significant reasons to find something about this situation deeply amiss: the helicopter pilot dropping Caleb off a good mile from the compound because "I'm not allowed to land any closer"; the unexpected, alpha-bro heartiness of the reclusive Nathan; even Caleb himself, a pale figure so passive and expressionless that you begin to wonder - and writer/director Garland takes full advantage of this - if the young man is the one who's actually an A.I. (The Irish Domhnall, son of the great Brendan Gleeson, adds to his remoteness by adopting one of those flat, all-purpose accents that Europeans frequently employ to play "American.") Yet our fascination and fears increase when Ava, despite the visible electronics encased in her frame, does indeed appear capable of independent thought and action. And they really increase when, during Caleb's and Ava's second interview, a momentary power outage prevents Nathan from monitoring their conversation, and Ava surreptitiously warns Caleb, "He's not your friend. You shouldn't trust anything he says."
From the start, Ex Machina is wholly engaging on a purely visual level. Rob Hardy's crisp cinematography gives Nathan's retreat, with its glass walls and high-tech gadgetry, a distinctively elegant "the future is now" sheen, and Garland's long takes allow us plenty of time to admire the gorgeousness in the forest landscape, the pristine research center, and the face of Alicia Vikander. But with Ava's warning and Caleb's confusion about what that warning could mean, a gnawing ugliness permeates the surface beauty, and Garland turns his sci-fi tale into a rather complex and frightening mystery - a considerable feat for a movie featuring only four main characters. (The fourth is Nathan's suspiciously mute "housekeeper" Kyoko, eerily played by Sonoya Mikuno.) Is Caleb there to study Ava, or so that Nathan can study him? Or, in a more insidious possibility, is it actually Ava who's doing the studying?
Certainly, in her sublime performance, Vikander gives every indication that Ava could be the one in control. In the recent Seventh Son, the Swedish performer was stuck in a thankless girlfriend role that didn't allow her to emerge as anything other than eye candy. Here, however, she's a revelation. Vikander is instantly credible as a sentient machine (which isn't the insult it might seem), yet what makes her especially great is that you feel you're not only watching a cyborg think, but learn to think. Through the tiniest shifts in focus and bearing, you see Ava modulate her responses to Caleb so that, in nearly every conversation, she winds up in the position of power, and as Ex Machina progresses, Vikander's beatific loveliness almost imperceptibly teeters toward malevolence; Ava never scared me more than when, near the end, her portrayer let loose with an uncharacteristically beaming grin.
What Vikander does here is smart, savvy, sexy work that continually keeps you on your toes, and it's 180 degrees removed from what Isaac provides, which is brashness and force and oftentimes hilarious condescension. In recent years, the 35-year-old Isaac has become maybe the most reliable young character actor in movies, and his Nathan is another singular creation - a brilliant hermit who's somehow both deeply intimidating and effortlessly approachable. (For his part, Gleeson may perhaps be too well-cast as a mild-mannered nebbish, but he has several topnotch moments, and holds his own against his more striking co-stars.) Isaac's isn't a characterization you'd ever expect, but then again, there's almost nothing about the superbly paced, madly involving Ex Machina that isn't unexpected.