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In a slick chamber piece, writer-director Alex Garland ponders a future where humans are scraggy bags of meat at the whim of a wily wi-fi widget

Ex Machina

Writer Alex Garland makes an assured debut behind the camera in make-you-think flick Ex Machina.

The writer moved from breakthrough gap year drama The Beach to drift towards sci-fi with Sunshine his most effective work (under the direction of Danny Boyle).

Here, his thoughts turn to another arena rich with philosophical ideas – artificial intelligence. And while the result might be patchy and ponderous in places, the scope of the inquiry is never less than captivating.

There are some stunning visuals too, which is all the more impressive considering the claustrophobic setting – the hi-tech, minimalist mountain-top recluse of a digital pioneer and billionaire Nathan.

Ever since the era of Hal, Data and C3PO (and before, of course) the nature of humanity has been salami sliced down to its essentials through drama. Can robots become human? Or are humans robots? Can the mechanical processes that give rise to consciousness be replicated or merely simulated?

This test – known as the Turing test – is one that faces coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins the golden ticket and gets to spend a week with genius Nathan (the ubiquitous Oscar Isaac).

Caleb comes face to face with Ava. Her semi-transparency adds to her vulnerability. She is graceful, doll-like and imprisoned. She is a self-aware robot and, in a series of set piece sessions, Caleb is invited to test the extent of her humanity.

Nathan is a T-shirted everyman who just happens to be brilliant. He likes a drink or two, works out, wants to be bessie mates with Caleb. Everything is chipper.

But then everything is sinister in this mesmeric, psychological chiller. Out of view of the CCTV, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is evil and she wants out. She knows the next upgrade will mean her destruction and she wants to feel the wind on her face.

But is this real or part of her programming? Is she in flirtation mode? Why does she have a gender at all?

The film centres on the shifting, menacing power play between the three of them. Both Ava and Caleb are rats in a maze trying to figure their Frankenstein’s end-game.

Bearded Oscar Isaac is charismatic as Nathan, Gleeson is as guileless and good-hearted as a Charlie in his chocolate factory while Alicia Vikander is balletic and captivating despite missing half her body.

The film dumps its philosophical preoccupations for something more direct in the last act but Garland has done enough to offer a view of the future that is less determined.

Ex Machina | (15) 108mins | ★★★★✩

Ex Machina