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If every dystopia created by Alex Garland’s pen existed within the same timeline, the microscopic events of Ex Machina would probably unspool long after the vicious outbreak of 28 Days Later and the Earth’s near annihilation in Sunshine. Society stills seems to be ticking away suggesting that the chaotic age of the Judges and Mega City in Dredd has yet to come to pass. In fact, if Ex Machina can be compared to any other Alex Garland opus it’s to his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both stories tackle a vague naturalistic future in which identity and technology appear to be locked in an eternal arm-wrestle. But all of these works tell us one crucial thing about Alex Garland: he is obsessed with the future.

In this particular future, Garland focuses in on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a gifted computer engineer who wins a competition to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a technology tycoon and genius inventor who has cherry-picked Caleb to assess his latest creation: a beautiful cyborg named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The aim of Caleb’s assessment is to determine whether or not Ava can exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human being. But with Nathan’s motivations cloaked in misdirection and his isolated research facility becoming increasingly insidious, Caleb finds himself questioning much more than Ava’s artificial intelligence.

For his first film as director, Garland doesn’t stray too far from his back catalogue but this is a much headier and more cerebral trip than the pulpy bite of his signature works. Essentially a three-hander between the triptych of leads, Ex Machina could easily be accused of being stagey  – it’s definitely a “people talking in rooms” movie – but Garland’s grasp of chilly atmosphere and pulsating intrigue keeps it cinematic. He displays a knack for making four walls unsettling and lots of exposition-dressed up-as-techno babble engaging. Imagine Roman Polanski and Christopher Nolan tag-team directing a sci-fi chamber piece and the results will look a lot like Ex Machina.

To say it’s components are so sparse, there’s a lot of data to ingest here. The cyborg identity crisis thing isn’t a new concept but it’s been a while since we’ve seen it tackled so directly or in such a grounded manner. You never forget Ava is inhuman but there’s a sensuality to her that is quite spellbinding. The film shares distant DNA with Spike Jonze’s Her. Garland’s future feels like a direct response to Jonze’s. If Joaquin Phoenix can fall in love with his operating system, then of course Domhnall Gleeson can be seduced by Ava. But that doesn’t make them any more of a compatible pair. The film gets more interesting as Ava’s own independent motivations are brought into play. Maybe of the two people in the room it is Caleb, not Ava, being assessed.

Vikander may not be a familiar face right now but that is about to change. The young actress is set to appear in no less than five major films in 2015 so get used to her. She is a natural beauty with an abundance of soul which floods every closeup Garland grants her. Her relative freshness adds a lot to her performance, there’s no baggage or preconceived notions to fall back on and no performance ticks to recognise. She is a blank slate. It’s easy to feel excited by her presence, it feels like a discovery. Yet there’s something vague and unknowing about her, which for an actress playing a robot playing a human being is exactly how it should be. It is a performance which imitates performance. It is only in the films denouement that we get a real sense of her inner-workings and even then questions are left satisfyingly unanswered.

Oscar Isaac too is something of a mini-revelation as Ava’s creator Nathan. Bearded, bald-headed and often clad in nothing more than sweats, vest and glasses, he isn’t your usual mad techno genius. We’re constantly suspicious of him. Garland never forgets that the audience knows (or rather thinks)  Nathan is the smartest person in the room. You never know when he is being slippery or sincere and it’s a tightrope Isaac walks with glee. He’s clearly enjoying playing a character that keeps bullshit detectors on indefinite red-alert and revels in his many layers. Part playboy, part outcast, Nathan also injects a lot of much-needed humour into the movie. His frequent forays into bro mode are always unexpected (like asking Caleb point blank during a potentially expository scene: “You want to fuck her, right?”) and ensure the character doesn’t become just another world-domineering inventor. Nathan could easily be described as a shmuck but it’s Isaac’s charm which keeps him tolerable.  He is one of the most watchable actors around at the moment and this is yet another terrific performance in a series of terrific performances.

Gleeson, who was so good in last year’s Frank and, briefly, Calvary, seems to have been given the short straw as Caleb. He’s the straight guy to Isaac and Vikander’s wild cards but he too is no average joe. Gleeson may be the most unconventional leading man around at the moment, he certainly doesn’t look like a movie star but he has undeniable star power. Not many actors could get away with making a introverted computer coder relatable yet he holds his own against Isaac impressively and, as their scenes become more confrontational, the more calculating Caleb turns out to be. Never underestimate the nerd.

If Ex Machina shines in its atmospherics, intelligence and cast of stars on the rise, then the film only really starts to get on shaky footing when all the loose ends begin to get tied up. There’s a mystery and fogginess to the first two thirds which are painfully missed in the last stretch as the plot is reduced to a rush-to-the-end clock ticker not too dissimilar from the divisive third act of Garland’s own Sunshine. It wouldn’t be accurate to call the finale disappointing but rather disappointingly expected. But sometimes the most obvious ending to a movie is obvious because it is the right one.

It’s not often we get a film this strong and original in the dreaded January dumping ground so if this is any indication of the year ahead, it’s time to get excited. Deceptively simple and steely, Ex Machina is a refreshingly restrained head-scratcher that sits comfortably with Garland’s impressive writing oeuvre. As someone often clouded by the shadow of directors like Danny Boyle and Mark Romanek, Ex Machina confidently announces him as a director to watch in his own right. I just hope his future is as exciting and varied as the ones in his movies.

Ex Machina is currently in limited release in the UK and will be released in the US on April 10th.

Directed by Alex Garland; written by Alex Garland; starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander; 108 minutes.