So many films have been made about what seems like a fairly limited subject - ranging in quality from 2001 to I, Robot - that it's a brave soul who attempts something new. Last year it was Spike Jonze, whose Her was a fascinating gawp at the complexities of love through the prism of a man shagging his iPhone; now it's the turn of Alex Garland, who, like Jonze, directs his own script about man / machine interaction and the perils and pitfalls thereof. Garland's first film as director is stylish and entertaining thanks to three terrific performances, but Ex Machina feels - not least because of the presence of Domhnall Gleeson - more like a lesser, lengthy episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror than a truly cinematic sci-fi classic.
Garland was clearly paying close attention to Mark Romanek when the latter directed the former's screenplay of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go: Ex Machina carries the same weight of ominous science-fictional mystery as that film, and sells its crackers concept equally well: that the world's most advanced synthetic human has been painstakingly created by lone beardy genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), using data harvested from the customers of his globally-used search engine "Bluebook". Why Garland didn't just go with Bing remains a mystery.
Nathan invites employee Caleb (Gleeson) to his IKEA showhouse in the middle of nowhere in order to test the AI-effectiveness of Ava (Alicia Vikander), his modern promethe-ess, but this innocent-sounding jolly evolves into a three-way battle of wits where trust is a luxury nobody can afford.
Also unaffordable: gloves
The three leads are perfectly cast here: Isaac is already one of the most watchable actors working in films right now so can pretty much do what he likes (including, here, a sexuality-questioning disco dance); Gleeson nails just the right levels of nerd and hero to pull off his role of, uh, nerdy hero; Vikander is painfully innocent but convincingly dangerous when necessary. Plus, she's precisely as hot as an artificially intelligent sex doll built by a lonely male genius should be.
Garland's forays into Ava's sexual attributes are representative of most of the story: tantalising but unfulfilled. Nathan describes Ava's nether regions in utilitarian detail to Caleb ("she has an opening", he drily remarks), and there's a substantial implication that Nathan has availed himself of that facility on more than one occasion, but we never really get to the bottom of what that means to either party. The focus instead is on Caleb's relationship with Ava, and who's really testing whose intelligence. That's fine, but it takes the form of pages and pages of dialogue which sound like they should be revealing a great deal more than they actually do.
"Does my posterior waste evacuation unit look big in this?"
References to Oppenheimer and the atom bomb (Caleb even listens to OMD's Enola Gay in his room, just to hammer the point home) seem intended to suggest a cataclysmic event on the horizon, but Ex Machina's fuse is dampened by a low-key, though still unexpected, finale. Characters talk about the misdirection of magicians, and sure enough you'll be conjuring up your own endings as the dialogue scenes stretch out, but Garland's own misdirection is misdirected: in hoping for a climax better than those you've been encouraged to imagine, he delivers instead one that fails to send you home thinking about all you've just seen.
On its own terms, Ex Machina is entertaining, often surprisingly funny (again, can't recommend the dance scene enough) and teases you with big ideas. But it feels a little like a flaccid Philip K Dick adaptation, and compared (as, unavoidably, it must be) to AI-probing predecessors like Blade Runner, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Her, it fails to capitalise on those ideas. As a writer and a director Alex Garland has undoubtedly proved himself, but on this evidence his best work as a writer/director is still ahead of him.