Ex Machina is a smart sci-fi chamber piece

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      Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander. Rated PG.

      The fine lines between spirit and flesh, and betwixt man and machine, are giddily redrawn in Ex Machina, a smart sci-fi chamber piece that reduces the future to just a few provocative elements.

      Element number one is Caleb, a sharp, if socially awkward, computer coder played by Domhnall Gleeson, who thought he was in trouble when stuck with that weird rock band in Frank. He wins a weekend getaway at the pastoral estate of his boss, head of a company bigger than Google and Facebook put together. There’s tension as soon as a mostly silent helicopter pilot drops Caleb off at this northern retreat. (The exteriors were shot in Norway, indoor stuff in England.) He’s never met Nathan, a bearded, shaven-headed bull of a man played by Inside Llewyn Davis’s Oscar Isaac, but the power games begin immediately, with each flattering the other in discomfiting ways.

      Caleb, it soon emerges, was brought there to analyze Nathan’s top-secret project: a robot with amazingly humanlike features. Despite her transparent bone structure, Ava (Sweden’s up-and-coming Alicia Vikander) has a face that can render men somewhat helpless. She is, you could say, Adam’s new Eve with some Ava Gardner star power added on. But who is Caleb in this coldly Edenic scenario?

      Making his stylish directorial debut, veteran screenwriter Alex Garland (scribe of such SF–minded efforts as Sunshine and 28 Days Later) doesn’t take labels lightly. And the serpentine antihero, who drinks too much and sees all women as projections of his personal id, made me think of Philip Roth’s ongoing alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman—who, in turn, recalls a certain innovator named Zuckerberg. Okay, that might be mere speculative fiction. There are hints of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and many other cultural forebears to this sexed-up look at the future.

      The film’s title, of course, is a play on the Latin term Deus ex machina, long used by dramatists to describe an abrupt plot intervention by a godlike outer influence. And this one does make a sudden grab at movie conventions at the end. Certainly, our mad inventor sees himself in Olympian terms, and he offers a disturbing interrogation of when, exactly, a machine stops being a machine and becomes something else.