Ex Machina is an egghead thriller with a scary selling point: It's a smart film about the shrinking divide between man and robot. It's also a hoot, an anti-comedy where all of the jokes double as threats, and vice versa. Ex Machina is the directorial debut of sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland. It's the film version of an iPhone: small, expensive-looking, and a touch overhyped -- plus an addictive sales pitch for whatever Garland makes next.
Our hero is computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a nervous 26-year-old smartypants tasked by tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) with investigating a robot named Ava (the symmetrically perfect Swedish actress Alicia Vikander), who has big boobs, a see-through stomach, and a child's curiosity about the world beyond her locked living quarters. Nathan wants Caleb to see if she passes the Turing Test -- can her mind pass for a human's?
The film keeps us at a remove, asking us, too, to observe and deduce. But Caleb has a harder time staying logical. As Ava and Caleb begin to bond, she covers her machinery with girlish dresses. Vikander's posture is so erect and her balletic walk so precise that she's convincing as a machine who's convincing as a human — she lets us understand why Caleb almost forgets about her circuitry, even as she reminds us to stay alert. Eventually, she'll ask Caleb a question he's afraid to answer: What will Nathan do with her if Caleb decides her wiring isn't perfect? The answer is inevitable. But the route Ex Machina takes to get there is full of fun detours -- robot nudity, disco dancing, digressions on Jackson Pollock -- that celebrate Garland's own imperfect chaos, an achievement worth applause.