Film of the week: Ex Machina

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the original Star Wars trilogy, Alien, Blade Runner and The Terminator peddled artificial intelligence as science fantasy, the reality of conscious machines seemed a distant dystopian nightmare.

Today, with voice-activated personal assistants on our mobile devices, automated restaurants and sophisticated software tracking every keystroke, a world controlled by computers appears within our sweaty grasp.

For his bravura directorial debut, London-born author and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) explores mankind's unquenchable desire to give birth to sophisticated automata that learns from its mistakes.

Shot largely within the confines of a state-of-the-art complex, which has enough fibre-optic cabling in the walls 'to reach the moon and lasso it', Ex Machina is a deeply disturbing thriller that explores the murky moral ramifications of creating a robot that could pass for human.

Nathan (Domhnall Gleeson) is a talented computer programmer at a hi-tech firm run by the enigmatic Caleb (Oscar Isaac).

Out of the blue, Nathan wins a weekend at the CEO's remote island retreat and journeys to the lush paradise in a private helicopter.

At the compound entrance, Nathan is issued with a security pass that he must carry at all times.

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Inside, he learns that he has been hand-picked by Caleb to take part in a ground-breaking experiment: to interrogate a functioning artificial intelligence prototype called Ava (Alicia Vikander).

'If you created a conscious machine, that's not the history of man, that's the history of gods!' gushes Nathan.

The programmer is dumbstruck by Ava's beauty and her ability to respond intelligently to his questions.

Very quickly, Nathan grows emotionally attached to Ava and he is distressed when she warns him not to trust Caleb.

The programmer's emotions are further complicated when he learns that Ava is the latest iteration of the CEO's secret work and will, by necessity, be scrapped to make way for a newer model.

Ex Machina exerts a vice-like grip on our attention, anchored by riveting performances from the central trio.

Gleeson exudes sufficient sweetness and naivete to convince us he would be an unsuspecting pawn in Caleb's diabolical and ultimately deadly game.

In stark contrast, Isaac bristles with machismo and menace as he voyeuristically documents Nathan's burgeoning attraction to Ava.

'Did you design Ava's face based on my pornography profile?' Nathan cheekily asks his mentor.

Vikander, who studied at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, sets the screen ablaze with her deliciously ambiguous portrayal.

Flawless visual effects blend seamlessly with her luminous performance to expose Ava's inner workings as she prowls her Perspex prison cell.

Like Nathan, we're bewitched by her as she devours knowledge and begs for help to avoid the scrapheap.

There's no chance of Garland's gripping film suffering a similarly grim fate.

**** (4 stars)

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