Review: A Modern Masterpiece, 'Ex Machina' is a Must-See Film

With "Sunshine" and "28 Days Later," screenwriter Alex Garland gave us thrilling interpretations of science fiction and horror. Now, with his directorial debut "Ex Machina," he delivers a genre-blending spectacle that defies simple description. You'll hear a lot of labels hurled at this fantastic film, ranging from horror to romance, psychological thriller to sci-fi drama, and even postmodern fairy tale. All are accurate.

However, it doesn't matter what you call "Ex Machina," just make sure you watch it, as it’s the first must-see film of 2015.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a computer coder who wins a lottery, allowing him exclusive week-long access to his idol and boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a temperamental tech magnate who develops top-secret innovations in his remote mountainside research facility/ home. It's like Willy Wonka and Charlie's Golden Ticket, except instead of a chocolate factory, Caleb gets to explore the mind-snapping secrets of Nathan's newest invention: Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android who may have successfully achieved consciousness.

Most of the narrative takes place within the claustrophobic walls of Nathan's facility. It's gorgeous and strange, made up of reinforced concrete colliding with exposed rock formations, surrounded by forests kept out by glass walls. Every crease of its construction means conflict. And here, Nathan, Caleb and Ava maneuver and manipulate in a complex web of relationships that makes for nail-gnawing suspense. The more Caleb probes Ava's artificial intelligence, the deeper he steps into a maze that will have audiences gasping at every turn.

In the respect of its Turing Test catalyst, "Ex Machina" is hard-edged sci-fi richly realized and reminiscent of the buzzed-about British drama series "Black Mirror" (in which Gleeson also starred). But if you forget for a moment that Ava is an android, the film plays as a poignant drama about control. Then it corkscrews into a riveting psychological thriller in which Caleb is forced to question not only his loyalties but also his grip on reality.

Reflecting the bend of his state of mind, the film's score becomes aggressive in its electronic roar, evoking the horror that underscores its "Frankenstein" origins. But as Caleb's growing affection for Ava blooms into romance, a fairy-tale narrative of a captive damsel and her white knight emerges. "Ex Machina" mixes genre conventions and tone with abandon, making for something fresh, fun and exhilarating.

Yet for all the film's tautly wound dramatic tension, all its tender moments of boy-meets-bot, all its thought-provoking dialogues, and even its more gruesome beats, "Ex Machina" is surprisingly and deliciously funny. Humor springs from the smarmy charm of Isaac's engineering genius, who works hard and plays hard, downing beers, muttering philosophy and boogying down in a delirious disco dance number that seems somehow both out of nowhere and pitch perfect. So many tones shouldn't work in one movie, and yet they play beautifully, balancing heart-pounding tension with sly sex appeal and a sophisticated playfulness. That’s thanks in no small part to "Ex Machina"s impeccable cast.

As Caleb, Gleeson is affable and earnest, binding us to him with his contagious curiosity. Isaac is unrecognizable, shedding his "Inside Llewyn Davis" locks for a shorn head and bushy beard; barrel-chested, he emits growls and exclamations of "Dude!" with equal relish. All that mesmerizing machismo makes for an intoxicating figure that’s both charismatic and intimidating. Each of this odd couple's scenes bubbles with a heady blend of fraternity and threat. Then there's Vikander as Ava.

As was true in their shared screen time in "Anna Karenina," it's a dream to watch Gleeson and Vikander fall in love. Beyond their chemistry, her birdlike movements are paired seamlessly with CGI that turns her limbs transparent, save for their gears, circuits, wires and metal mesh. Her thoughtful line delivery, so sweet and inquisitive, is accompanied by a constant whirring of her exposed machinery. We are never to forget she is a robot. This is a perfect marriage of performance, visual effects and sound design that makes "Ex Machina’s” world feel breathtakingly real. It took me back to the awe and wonder of seeing the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park" for the first time. Yes, this is the level at which "Ex Machina.”

The tangle of captivating performances and miraculous movie magic is elegant, making for a superbly entertaining film. Its wickedly sophisticated production design demands rewatching, laying out clues like breadcrumbs to its big conclusion. The cinematography is deceptively simple but creates a sense of menace in its frames, leaving foreshadowing elements in their corners that project a sense of doom. Yet Garland never tips his hand to give the whole game away, resulting in a conclusion that’s slick, sharp and sensational.

”Ex Machina” opens today in select theaters.

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