Celebrated British novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (Dredd) makes his long-awaited directorial debut with Ex Machina, a stunningly-shot, beautifully-acted and puzzling sci-fi thriller that drips with fear, style and intrigue. Although the film was well-received at SXSW back in March (thanks, in large part, to a slightly dubious marketing campaign), and enjoyed a limited theatrical run in the UK and Ireland, it’s only now hitting US shores. There’s nothing quite like it in theatres right now, and regardless of what you may think you know about it, this is the kind of movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

Irish up-and-comer Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan), stars as likeable office drone Caleb, a computer programmer and hopeless romantic. After winning a contest at work, Caleb finds himself spending a few days alone with the MD of the company, the eccentric and reclusive Nathan (played by the ubiquitous Oscar Isaac). Although he seems at first to have hit the jackpot, upon landing at Nathan’s ridiculously modern, isolated abode (all glass, everything is computerised, there’s an expansive basement laboratory), Caleb soon realises that all is not as it seems as Ava, an ultra-sophisticated female A.I., is trotted out and he is instructed to test her consciousness.

The central conceit of Ex Machina is a simple one but, much like Ava herself, its many layers gradually reveal themselves the longer Caleb spends holed up with the strange Nathan and his weirdly beautiful, suspiciously sentient robot. Garland handles script-writing duties and the exchanges between the three central characters really crackle as a result, particularly in the burgeoning bromance between Nathan and Caleb. As he begins to warm to Ava, Nathan questions his boss’s intentions with her, but Garland ensures he keeps the creator unreadable so, much like Caleb, we’re never quite sure what he’s thinking. The drama is created as each character tries to figure out the other’s motivation.

Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac in Ex MachinaIt helps that the backdrop is absolutely stunning. Although it consists mostly of giant, floor-to-ceiling windows, Nathan’s home (shot on location at the breath-taking Juvet Landscape Hotel in Norway) is suffocatingly claustrophobic, almost prison-like in its sterility. Each of Caleb’s sessions with Ava are denoted with a cue card, keeping us constantly aware of how slowly the days are creeping by, and they are shot tight, the camera gliding between her perfect, wrinkle-free visage and his worn, pudgy human face. Garland’s aim is for us to try to guess, along with Caleb, whether Ava is truly sentient. However, what soon becomes clear is, the more that’s revealed, the less we know.

Certain critics have been a bit sniffy about Ex Machina‘s alleged “woman problem”, pointing out that Ava, as a character, is utterly sexualised and devoid of any real traits, while Caleb and Nathan are given the real emotional arc of the story. I disagree entirely: Ava is the heart of the film (even though she, technically doesn’t have one). She’s the anchor, the sun around which Caleb and Nathan orbit. As played by Swedish newcomer Alicia Vikander, in an astonishingly nuanced performance, she seems at once otherworldly and frighteningly human. Watch how she puts on a dress, the garment practically floating onto her, or how her eyes widen as she searches Caleb’s features for giveaways of his true intentions.

At the risk of giving away a dreaded spoiler, I’d wager that Ava might one day be considered one of the great feminist heroes of genre cinema. Yes, she’s sexualised, but the slave/master dynamic isn’t as straightforward as the film’s detractors would have you believe. In fact, the whole premise of Ex Machina hinders on whether Ava actually does know what’s going on, whether she’s using Caleb and Nathan or they are using her. There are a handful of slightly uncomfortable moments, particularly in the discovery of some discarded female robotic parts, but Garland isn’t leering at such things, he’s inviting us to question them and be disturbed by them (a dance sequence, involving Isaac, has become infamous for other reasons and is uncomfortable in the best possible way).

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Regardless of whether it’s anti-women–and I don’t believe it is–Ex Machina is a brave, well-made and defiantly different debut feature. Known mostly for penning The Beach, the novel on which the Leonardo Di Caprio backpacker nightmare movie was based, Garland has really stepped outside his comfort zone here. An assured script is carried by three remarkable performances from the central trio, who take up most of the screen time in the same location.

Isaac, un-recognisable with shaven head, buff body, stylish nerd glasses and bushy black beard, is enigmatic as the calculating Nathan. Gleeson is his trusting, smart yet ultimately clueless counterpart, his eyes wide throughout and his mannerisms less sure. Considering the two of them are set to star in JJ Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars sequel, this is only the beginning of their ascent. And Vikander outdoes the two of them, in what is surely her breakthrough performance. At just 26, she’s already light-years ahead of her contemporaries, even if it’s sadly unlikely she’ll get to sink her teeth into a role this meaty again any time soon (she most recently starred in the mental Seventh Son).

Ex Machina is a smart, slow-burning and fascinating sci-fi thriller that deals with themes of sexuality, humanity and morality against a truly luscious backdrop. Nathan’s mountainside retreat is the thing of fantasy, a glass prison out of which nobody is guaranteed to escape but from which it’s difficult to look away. Garland plays with our expectations right up until the closing credits, ensuring it’s never clear who is playing whom. It may be attracting the wrong kind of attention at the moment, given the raging debate over equal rights for women in Hollywood, but it will find its audience. And, with the hindsight offered by the home viewing market, Ex Machina could even become one of the classics of the genre. It’s certainly worlds apart from recent, similar releases, and it will stay with you long after its gorgeous final shot has melted away.

WICKED RATING: (8 / 10)

Director(s): Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Dohmnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Year: 2015
Studio/ Production Co: DNA Films, Film 4
Language: English
Length: 108 minutes
Sub-Genre: Sci-fi