Movie review: Sci-fi creeper "Ex Machina" is one of year's best movies

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

That cheery quote from physicist Stephen Hawking sets the tone for the much-buzzed sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina.” The movie posits more “should we” than “could we.” Oh, and it’s one of my picks for best of the year thus far.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder drone working for a massive internet company when he is randomly selected for a chance to participate in an experiment at the compound of company founder and CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

Caleb is choppered in to Nathan’s massive and isolated compound and soon learns he’ll be the human component in a test of a breakthrough new artificial intelligence.

Caleb interacts with a female-formed robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava has a face and hands that look perfectly human, but she also has a translucent torso that belies the illusion. “The real test is to show she’s a robot,” Nathan explains, “and then see if you then feel she’s human.”

Alex Garland (writer of “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”) directs his own work for the first time, and the results are stylish and stunning. As Caleb begins to feel trapped in his isolated environment, the tension becomes smothering.

The amazing set design and precision of camera work call to mind Stanley Kubrick — and the topic was, of course, one of Kubrick’s unfinished projects (it became Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”). Not to mention the fact that Nathan’s compound has the same isolation factor of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.”

Gleeson continues to carve out one of the best post-“Harry Potter” careers (he was Bill Weasley), as Caleb begins to question whom is really being experimented on and whom he can trust. Isaac is calm and sinister in his best performance to date, and Vikander evokes the same eerie disconnect Scarlett Johansson showed in last year’s “Under the Skin” (released by the same studio, A24 Films, which is quickly becoming my favorite indie).

Also like “Under the Skin,” there is some unease in female forms that are literally objects as issues of love and lust become part of the experiment. “Ex Machina” plays with some heavy ideas in a stylish package. I rate it a must-see.

Photo courtesy of A24 Films

"Ex Machina"

Opens Friday

4 stars out of 4