“Ex Machina” is an exquisite puzzle box of a picture. It baffles. It unsettles. It intrigues.
At its center — baffling, unsettling and infinitely intriguing — is a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), the creation of a wealthy genius scientist/entrepreneur named Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
Ava is literally transparent, her mechanical innards visible through clear plastic skin. Writer-director Alex Garland and the picture’s production team have, through the use of CGI, conceived and constructed an amazing-looking entity in Ava.
Yet there is much of Ava that is hidden. She is a walking, talking enigma. Behind the lovely, expressive human mask grafted onto her mechanical head lies a hyperadvanced man-made brain.
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She’s an artificial intelligence entity, close to human. But how close? Nathan recruits one of his top programmers, a geeky young fellow named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to administer the so-called Turing test to her to find out whether her intelligence matches, or perhaps exceeds, that of human beings.
The setting of this experiment is a remote forest fortress bought and built by Nathan’s megamillions, a place of opulence and austerity, of featureless gray concrete walls and pricey furnishings. There is glass everywhere. Inside, the glass encloses Ava in a mazelike prison. Through its glass windows to the outside, occupants can see an Eden-like setting that’s like the forest primeval. It’s perfect hideout for a reclusive eccentric Nathan.
The performances are extraordinary with Vikander’s being the most nuanced. She plays Ava with a Mona Lisa smile — inscrutable yet mesmerizing — and a voice that is preternaturally calm and oddly seductive. She embodies curiosity, hungry to learn all there is to know about her interrogator Caleb, but at the same time is formidably reserved.
Gleeson’s Caleb is a loner, and lonely. He’s attracted to her intelligence and bewitched by her undeniable allure. As he falls under he spell, he comes to question the nature of humanity, not only of Ava’s (possible) humanity, but of his own.
Isaac, coming off his highly praised performance in “A Most Violent Year,” once again does extraordinary work. His Nathan, creator of a search engine that’s made him enormously wealthy, has the kind of intimidating arrogance of a Steve Jobs. He clearly believes he’s the smartest guy on the planet and is comfortable playing God both with his creation Ava and with his employee Caleb.
Garland’s conception and handling of this material is close to flawless. It’s hard to believe this is his first directorial effort. A novelist (“The Beach”) turned screenwriter (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” both directed by Danny Boyle), and clearly a man of great intelligence, he’s made one of the most extraordinary science-fiction movies in recent memory.