Ex Machina is one of the smartest, most thought-provoking science fiction movies in ages. And that probably conjures images of a slow, introspective Sundance-y film — but actually, Ex Machina moves at a ruthless pace, and kicks your ass up one all and down the other. Minor spoilers ahead...

(And here, "minor spoilers" means that this review won't contain anything you couldn't learn from the movie's trailer.)

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Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. And as you'd expect based on that track record, this is an intense psychological thriller, in which strong personalities are jammed together in a confined space and things slowly unravel. What you might not necessarily expect is how cerebral and thought-provoking the whole thing is.

In Ex Machina, a young geek named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) gets chosen to visit his genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at Nathan's compound in the middle of nowhere. And Caleb soon discovers that Nathan has developed an artificial intelligence, the beautiful and sensuous Ava (Alicia Vikander), and Nathan wants Caleb to give Ava a kind of modified Turing test.

At first glance, Ex Machina seems kind of been-there-done-that. There have been a ton of movies about artificial intelligence lately, including a few with a sexy lady A.I. (Just a year ago, we had The Machine, another British movie that looks superficially the same as Ex Machina.) It doesn't help that the design for Ava is pretty much the standard "sexy robot" design from the vodka commercials and Hajime Sorayama paintings, with a few minor tweaks.

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But don't let appearances deceive you — this movie is telling a pretty unique story, with a singular focus. And to the extent that it's playing into standard-issue "sexy lady robot" archetypes, it's doing so in order to pull the rug out from under you in a pretty major way.

Part of what's great about Ex Machina, in fact, is the way that it uses all of your expectations against you — you think you know what sort of movie this is going to be, and then it keeps surprising you. And there's also a reason why the film is playing so much with our standard, usual ideas about how A.I. will appear — because, as we soon learn, Ava's appearance is designed to elicit a response from Caleb.

The other great thing about Ex Machina is that its intelligence feels very organic. The three characters talk like smart people, which is to say they say intelligent things as though it comes naturally to them — there's none of the archness or artificiality of smart people in movies. The movie packs some clever twists, that are both neat and very well-thought-out. And more importantly, the cleverness also leads to some gut-punching "oh shit" moments.

And yeah, this movie is psychologically brutal. The relationship between Caleb and Nathan, from pretty much the first time they meet, is incredibly painful to watch, and yet endlessly fascinating as well. Caleb looks up to Nathan and wants to please him, and Nathan takes full advantage of this in a way that edges closer and closer to bullying as the film moves forward.

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A lot of the movie does consist of the three stars playing off each other, and a lot of their interactions are bloody intense. Full credit must go to Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander, all of whom bring a lot of subtle nuances to their interactions, that keep you leaning forward in your seat so you don't miss any of the layers of subtext — all the better for the movie to thwack you between the eyes.

Plus pretty much every scene moves the story forward, at a pretty ruthless clip. Although there's definitely time, here and there, for some amazing WTF moments. Like the dance scene that's guaranteed to spawn a million GIFs. (You can see a hilarious GIF of it already at Cine Para Aficionados, but it's a bit too spoilery to include here.)

The smartness of Ex Machina is pressed into the service of ratcheting up the tension, minute by minute, as Caleb and Nathan become more and more at odds. All of the neat ideas and moments of psychological insight help to draw you further into the conflict. It's a really well-done small-scale thriller, in other words.

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And all of those ideas about artificial intelligence that movies have been poking at superficially a lot lately? Ex Machina does wind up addressing them, but in a way that's a lot more subversive and challenging. Is Ava a person? Should she be Nathan's property, or should she be free? Can she have a real sexuality, or real emotions? Is she going to replace us? Is she a god, or does creating her make us gods? Etc. etc.

The film leaves a lot of those questions unanswered — but it also answers a surprising number of them, in a way that will catch you off guard. And some of them, it answers through little subtle moments, in which the characters reveal more than they meant to, or give the game away.

For a first-time director, Garland seems to have a pretty strong instinct for framing shots, and makes strong use of the sterile, self-contained bunker-like setting of the film (in a similar way to Moon.) The film's persistent sense of claustrophobia plays on the unrelieved, Apple-store whiteness of the space — which occasionally turns submarine-red when there's a power outage. Meanwhile, Garland also makes striking use of the stark, pristine wilderness around Nathan's compound, playing up the contrast with the total artificiality of Nathan's space without doing anything flashy.

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Ex Machina is almost certainly one of 2015's best science fiction movies, and it's a great antidote to the lazy technophobia or bland wankery of most narratives about artifical consciousness. Anyone who cares about technology — or about smart explorations of human nature, period — should home in on the nearest theater showing x Machina with the remorselessness of a Terminator.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.