Here's a lesson Hollywood would do well to learn: Smarter trumps bigger when it comes to sci-fi films. For a long time, smart is precisely what we get from director Alex Garland's debut move, Ex Machina, the story of two men and a robot.
The movie begins when a computer programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to spend a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive genius who runs a Google-like internet company that has given him shameful amounts of wealth.
Reachable only by helicopter, Nathan's home seems to have been carved into the rocky cliffs of a lush landscape. The place is part retreat and part laboratory, a location that's at once ominous, alluring and so design-dominated that it seems to have had every ounce of humanity wrung from it.
It took me more than half the movie to remember that Isaac, an actor who manages to look different in every role, is playing Nathan.
In last year's A Most Violent Year, Isaac portrayed an impeccably dressed, upwardly mobile businessman who was trying to grow his oil delivery service amid gangster-like competition in the New York metropolitan area.
Here, Isaac portrays a billionaire recluse, a manipulative guy who throws off sparks of danger. Nathan works out on a heavy bag, and often wanders about his home shirtless. He regards himself not only as the smartest guy in the room, but maybe in the entire world.
In a way, Gleeson has the more difficult role; his Caleb is an open book, a normal guy trying to keep pace with a genius, a job that we sense may be beyond his skill-set.
Nathan tells Caleb that he wants help in testing one of his inventions, a robot named Ava. The task: To determine whether Ava has developed consciousness independent of her creator's programs. Can Caleb come to regard Ava as he would a human?
Played by former Swedish* ballet dancer Alicia Vikander, Ava seems to have her own personality. She's built to reveal the high-tech workings that keep her operating, but also to be subtly sexy.
Ex Machina isn't without deficiencies, but its setting and premise are so encompassing, we feel as if we've been transported into an alien world -- not exactly forbidden, but not entirely comfortable, either.
Garland -- who also wrote the screenplay -- gives himself lots to work with: That's hardly surprising because he also wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, all movies with juicy subtexts.
As the characters in Ex Machina interact, they keep us guessing about their motivations, but it's Isaac who gives the movie its tension: His Nathan can be hospitable, but he's controlling, secretive and scary.
As the story develops, Caleb begins to be drawn into Ava's world. This, of course, raises questions about what it might mean if he falls for Ava. Can man and machine find happiness together? Can Caleb get Ava out of what has become her mountain prison? Is Ava really a machine?
Directing with a sure hand, Garland keeps us off guard for a long time. In the end, though, Ex Machina can't quite carry its intelligence across the finish line for a truly resonant finale. At just the moment when the movie should enlarge, it seems to shrink and get smaller.
Still, the performances are strong, and at its best, Ex Machina serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men are left alone with their very expensive toys.
*In an earlier posting, I misidentified Vikander as Danish. My bad.