Over the past 40 years, science fiction, once the domain of geeks and nerds, has taken over the multiplex. Yet most of the films that pass for big-screen science fiction these days are just action movies pumped up with wow-inducing futuristic gizmos.
It’s rare to see a sci-fi film that harkens back to the genre’s origins as a literary test bed for speculation about the ways that technology might evolve — and require humans to change in the process.
But that’s just what “Ex Machina” is. The directorial debut of Alex Garland, the screenwriter behind the space horror movie “Sunshine” and the revisionist zombie flick “28 Days Later,” “Ex Machina” is a spare, beautiful, masterfully crafted exercise in pure science fiction storytelling.
Smart and talky, but also intensely engaging, it plays like a movie version of the sort of story you might find in venerable science fiction magazines such as “Asimov’s” or “Analog” at their peak. It’s one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years.
Like so many great science fiction tales, the story is built around a deceptively simple, real-world concept: the Turing test. Named for computer scientist Alan Turing (the subject of last year’s biopic “The Imitation Game”), it’s a test to determine whether a computer has achieved human-level intelligence simply by having a conversation with it. If the conversation is fluid and convincing enough to pass for human, the thinking goes, then the machine has achieved intelligence, even consciousness.
These tests usually are performed over text-based computer interfaces, but in “Ex Machina,” software developer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is flown to a distant mountain retreat — the home of Nathan (Oscar Iaac), a rich, reclusive tech mogul — to become the tester in a face-to-face Turing test.
Nathan, the founder and owner of a Google-like search engine company, claims to have invented a true artificial intelligence, Ava, which he has embedded in a sleek robot body (played, with the help of some dazzling effects, by Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s job is to conduct a series of free-form interviews — and then determine whether she is truly intelligent.
The encounters between Caleb and Ava are fascinating, especially when Ava begins to flip the script by quizzing him. Part of what makes those scenes work is Ms. Vikander’s elegant, haunting portrayal of a humanoid robot. Her movements and facial expressions are precise, refined and smooth, as if she has made herself ever so slightly less human. She casts herself into the uncanny valley.
Mr. Gleeson, meanwhile, plays Caleb as a proto-geek, skinny and awkward, inwardly focused and excitable, but also with a slight angry edge. At first, he becomes caught up in the science of A.I. and is unable to see Ava’s humanity. Later, he falls in love with her — and seems to want to own her. It’s a subtle indictment of geek culture and the tech community.
But it’s Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of an obscenity-spewing tech empire founder that is this movie’s killer app. Nathan is profane and rude and funny and terrifying all at once, and Mr. Isaac gives him a burly, surprisingly imposing physicality; you believe that he is smart enough and driven enough to have created Ava all by himself.
The foul-mouthed philosophizing of the movie’s first hour eventually descends into a kind of robo-horror show, pitting man against his machines. It’s satisfying and shocking, but the twists are never overdone.
Mr. Garland keeps the mood sterile and cool, as if not to tip the Turing test’s scales.
But don’t be fooled by the chilly veneer: This is a thinking, feeling science fiction movie that is very much alive.
TITLE: “Ex Machina”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Alex Garland
RATING: R for profanity, violence
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes