Screenwriter Alex Garland has written some of the more interesting sci-fi scripts of the last few years—the bio zombie plague thriller, 28 Days Later, for one, and Sunshine, about a group of astronauts on a mission to jump-start the dying sun in time to save the earth.
Now Garland moves into the director's chair with his new film Ex Machina. It's a simmering chamber piece for three, with elegant echoes of Frankenstein and Blade Runner, yet very much rooted in both the technology and the prevailing mind-set of today.
The dialogue-free prologue sets up the premise in swift, deft strokes. Caleb (appealing naif Domhnall Gleeson), an anonymous programmer at a gigantic Internet search engine company, receives an email at work one day, telling him he's won a company-sponsored contest.
The prize is to spend a week with the company's elusive, tech-genius founder at his private, forested retreat in the mountains, accessible only by helicopter, hours away from any other human habitation. (All of this is conveyed via text messages and computer screens, until the info goes viral, and Caleb's co-workers come spilling into his cubicle to congratulate him.)
After hours in the air, Caleb is finally set down seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Thus, he descends into the lavish, largely subterranean compound of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Mercurial, no-nonsense, hard-drinking Nathan needs another brainy guy to help with his latest project, a top secret experiment in artificial intelligence. He schedules Caleb for daily test sessions with his new robotic creation, called Ava, to help determine if the machine has developed a consciousness of its own.
But while much of her body is clear Lucite, revealing the wires and circuitry within (think of the '60s kids toy, Mr. Machine), Ava has the face and form of a seductive young woman. She's played by Alicia Vikander (abetted by some very sophisticated CGI imagery).