There's an entire subgenre in science fiction devoted to the potential dangers of artificial intelligence (A.I.). The finest A.I.-themed films — such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner — easily move beyond the idea of robots-gone-wrong to address ethical and philosophical quandaries that spring from any story involving self-aware machines. What exactly constitutes consciousness? If an A.I. possesses the desire for its own continued existence, are its creators obligated to honor that wish? Such issues typically lead to an examination of what it means to be human, which is where sci-fi transcends genre limitations to reach its highest expression.
This is the fertile ground in which British novelist, screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland sows Ex Machina, a challenging and timely take on the long-term potential of A.I. Garland has developed a specialty in science-induced catastrophe as the screenwriter for films like 28 Days Later (synthetic virus causes zombie apocalypse) and Never Let Me Go (the horrors of human cloning). But Ex Machina's story of a uniquely sentient robot is not especially concerned with looming threats to humanity. It's a potent psychological thriller and an ambivalent cautionary tale that's more focused on posing provocative questions than providing easy answers.
Questions are the raw material from which Ex Machina's story is built. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at Blue Book, the world's dominant Internet search engine (apparently "Google" was unavailable), which was founded by brilliant and reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb wins a company contest to spend a week with Nathan at his rural hideaway, which turns out to include a private lab where Nathan has secretly developed a very special robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb discovers that he will spend the week helping to administer a "Turing Test," which determines whether an A.I. can pass for human. What follows is essentially a series of intense conversations — filled with practical and philosophical questions — that evolves into a game of cat-and-mouse among the film's three speaking characters. But all may not be as it seems.
Ex Machina has style to burn and appears uniquely self-assured for a directorial debut. There's a minimalist aesthetic guiding every aspect of the film, from the architecture of Nathan's compound to the ideal mix of human traits and high technology represented by Ava's striking design and Vikander's performance. An eerie soundtrack by Geoff Barrow (of Portishead fame) and Ben Salisbury similarly blends electronic and acoustic instruments and ratchets the tension as events escalate.
For all his painstaking work on the look and feel of Ex Machina (despite a modest budget), Garland finds his secret weapon in Isaac. Familiar from starring roles in Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year (and soon to be featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the 36-year-old Isaac proves himself an actor with very few peers through his utterly convincing work as the megalomaniacal Nathan. Exuding confidence but ultimately lacking self-awareness, Nate's physical presence alone speaks volumes about his flawed character.
Some plausibility issues linger after Ex Machina ends, but it's a small price to pay for an elegant film that leaves us with much to consider. In an era of genetic engineering and virtual experience, we'd do well to address the ramifications of A.I. before it arrives on our doorstep with questions of its own.