Ex Machina, film review: Intelligent life found in this tricksy, modern sci-fi

(15) Dir. Alex Garland; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, 108mins
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The Independent Culture

In his 1950 paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence", Alan Turing devised the thought experiment which he called "the imitation game" but which has come to be called the Turing test – a simple but surprisingly robust way to compare human intelligence with that of machines. Essentially, if a person cannot tell whether he is communicating with another human or with a machine, then the machine has passed the threshold for what we now call artificial intelligence.

Note that the machine does not actually have to have human intelligence, it only has to be able to deceive the tester into thinking it does. This deception is at the heart of Alex Garland's directorial debut: a tricksy sci-fi chamber piece in which the alpha-genius creator of the world's most powerful internet search engine (Oscar Isaac) lures a diffident young computer coder to his underground research facility and introduces him to his latest creation: Ava, a super-smart, sexy android played with other-worldly grace by Alicia Vikander. The coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is supposedly there to perform the Turing test on Ava. But who is trying to fool who, and which is the more dangerous: Frankenstein or his monster?

Garland's script is as genre-literate as it is scientifically literate. It is especially deft in its handling of what Blade Runner fans might call "the Deckard problem": the doubts about his own humanity that a film's protagonist might feel after spending so much time in the company of ultra-realistic androids. Garland, who previously wrote, among other things, Danny Boyle's films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, has clearly learnt a thing or two from Boyle about how to give a low- to medium-budget film a high-gloss finish. Ex Machina is set almost wholly within the clean lines of the sort of hi-tech compound you'd get if Frank Lloyd Wright designed The Andromeda Strain.

In other words, it looks as smart as it sounds. So it might only be a pulpy sci-fi thriller, or it might be a rich, deeply considered meditation on technology, sexuality and human nature. See if you can tell which.