★ ★ ★ ★ ½

Ex Machina, the dazzling directorial debut of Alex Garland, is a can’t-miss sci-fi thriller. The film wastes no time in introducing us to its essential plot details, with most of the setup out of the way within the first 15 minutes. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a skilled coder and programmer for Blue Book, a Google-esque search engine and tech giant founded by a reclusive genius named Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Caleb is overjoyed to learn that he’s won a company-wide lottery for a weeklong retreat at the CEO’s remote property, which is only accessible via an extended helicopter ride. The timid young man arrives at the stunning property, and is soon greeted by the eccentric and hard-drinking Nathan.

Caleb is presented with a nondisclosure agreement and a vague offer to participate in a historic research opportunity. Nathan details his development of a being with highly advanced artificial intelligence, and asks his employee to act as a beta tester of his invention’s mental capacity and human intuition. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is that invention—a strikingly beautiful humanoid with a spellbinding intellect. Caleb begins his testing of Ava by conversing with her and probing her levels of self-awareness.

In time, Nathan’s erratic behavior starts to trouble Caleb. He drinks constantly, fluctuating between deep conversations on science and morality and states of near-catatonia or complete unpredictability. There’s a steady sense of foreboding as Caleb digs deeper into Ava’s artificially manufactured subconscious. He’s defenseless against her charm, beauty, and sense of wonder, and he eventually finds himself infatuated with her. All of their interactions are carefully watched by Nathan through closed-circuit feeds, except when the mansions’ generators fail and shut down the research facilities’ recording devices. During one of these brief blackouts, Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan—thrusting the film into its chaotic and thrilling second half.

Garland made a name for himself as the screenwriter of two of Danny Boyle’s fantastic sci-fi movies: 2002’s 28 Days Later… and 2007’s underappreciated Sunshine. With Ex Machina, he makes a leap into extraordinary new territory. His mind-bending tale of mortality and futurism is aided by fantastic performances from all three of the leads, especially Vikander. The film is saturated with a raw and palpable sexuality, symbolized by her mesmerizing and understated gaze. As Caleb internally debates his attraction to this sentient being, viewers will question who is displaying more signs of humanity—the men or the robot.

Cinematographer Rob Hardy complements the heady science-fiction narrative with recurring shots of the surrounding beauty of Nathan’s estate. The lush scenery, which includes waterfalls and green fields, becomes a constant reminder of the natural world that hosts the man-made creation of artificial intelligence.

In one of Nathan’s drunken rants, he mutters repeatedly and agonizingly, “The good deeds a man has done before defend him”—which eventually reads as a confession of the exploitative means he has used to achieve his remarkable vision. Visually stunning and poignant (but without overstating its own importance), Ex Machina should be considered one of the year’s best films—in any genre.