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With all due respect to the enjoyable spectacle from the end of the calendar year that put more eyeballs on Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson than ever before, Ex Machina is 2015 science fiction film featuring the two actors that approaches greatness. The directorial debut of Alex Garland, the film casts Gleeson as a programmer drone at a multinational tech corporation who gets selected for an exclusive trip to the home workshop of the company’s CEO (Isaac) with the promise of getting an early glimpse at the latest innovations. The breakthrough device is a robot dubbed Ava (Alicia Vikander), supposedly built with the most refined artificial intelligence ever devised. Gleeson’s character tests the capability of the machine by engaging in a series of one-on-one conversations. The cunning screenplay weaves uncertainty throughout the story. Motivations, histories, and intentions are suspect, with Isaac taking particularly evident pleasure in portraying his wealthy visionary with a shifting tilt in the direction of unhinged menace. It’s Vikander, though, who delivers the film’s most artful performance, imbuing Ava with a delicate radiance and childlike hesitancy that are at odds with a clicking intelligence. Garland had a few scattered scripts produced before this, but none of them properly forecast the wisdom and psychological insight he’s able to generate with Ex Machina (his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is probably closest in tone and milieu to what he does here). More impressively, Garland’s direction is remarkably assured and controlled, informed by the serious-minded chilliness and sharp staging of Stanley Kubrick, but with a gratifying touch of inner rambunctiousness. Like the best science fiction, Ex Machina uses its futuristic invention to expose deeper truths about the human experience in the here and now.

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