Throughout much of its modern history, science-fiction has been concerned with artificial intelligence and, specifically, what's come to be known as the Turing Test. The ramifications of machines achieving self-awareness has fired the imaginations of writers such as Philip K. Dick, filmmakers like James Cameron and countless others.
If "Ex Machina" isn't treading new thematic ground in the story of a programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is picked by his reclusive boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to take part in an experiment at his forest-shrouded mansion, the directorial debut of longtime screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later") and novelist ("The Beach") employs an intellectualized, matter-of-fact quality that makes it feel like you're watching a science experiment gone seriously awry.
The camera soaks up the chic quarters and slick modern surfaces of Nathan's nouveau riche abode. It's immaculately clean and deeply impersonal, reflecting the attitude of its owner, who is able to view the matter of freethinking android Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a level of disconnect that Caleb simply can't manage in his interactions with her.
This really is thinking-person's science-fiction, crafted with a steadfast attention to the minutiae of the experiment while building suspense derived from the increasing tension between Caleb and his boss.
The film takes place entirely within the mansion, which comes to feel like a prison for all three individuals, reflecting the contours of the mind and spirit, which are perpetually hemmed in by one factor or another.
Garland profits tremendously from an outstanding performance by Isaac, who exudes danger and menace even when he's simply working out or dancing.
"Ex Machina" doesn't inspire much of an emotional connection. It's so engaged in the delicate psychology, in its observational mode, that the characters all feel like rats in a maze. Of course, that's the point.