Artificial Intelligence has gotten a lot of treatment in the sci-fi genre, so it is tricky for anything to feel new anymore. From Terminator, to AI, to Blade Runner, the genre has seen every sort of scenario. Ex Machina, the debut film from Alex Garland pays homage to what came before, introduces us to an alluring new robot, and crafts a masterfully taut film that delivers deep philosophical questions in a neat, Kubrick-esque package.
We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a skilled computer programmer, when he wins the chance to go work on a special project with the reclusive CEO of his company. Without any idea of what to expect, he is whisked away by helicopter into the mountains where Nathan (Oscar Isaac) introduces him to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he believes possesses true Artificial Intelligence.
The cast, though there are only three with actual lines, deliver electrifying and tense performances. Each of them is a star on the rise, with most of them having another film out this year. Gleeson delivers a timidly intellectual performance as the cluelessly naive programmer who has to administer the Turing Test for Ava. We know just as much as he does, so his arrival is equally as nerve-wracking and bizarre to us as it is to him. Isaac, however, is menacingly shady. After building what is essentially the ultimate version of Google, he has lived in the mountain in complete solitude except for his robotic slave, Kyoko. From the start, we are uncertain of his motives and his temperament. Isaac continues to be a consistently remarkable actor in any sort of genre.
Vikander (Testament of Youth) brings a curious sexiness to the film as the mysterious and seductive robot who appears robotic, but acts just like a human would. Her scenes with Gleeson as he gives her the test offer us insight into his past as well as how her mind functions in terrifyingly human ways. Just like Under the Skin in 2014—which dealt with what it meant to be human and to have consciousness—Ex Machina asks these same questions, but in a more straight forward and digestible way. Ava, despite her robotic components, appears as human as can be. We are never quite sure, though, as much as we want to believe, what she really is, though it is finally revealed in its tremendous conclusion that keeps you thinking even after the credits end.
Without a doubt, Ex Machina is one of the best—if not the best—sci-fi film to come out this year. With stellar performances, exemplary pacing, and its instillation of deep-thinking questions, it keeps you guessing and thinking up until the end—and then even after. Chalk Ex Machina up as one of the best films of the year and let’s all wait for the robot apocalypse to take over.