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I approached Ex Machina with some trepidation, because I read Alex Garland’s The Beach long ago, and thought the novel had more hype behind it than actual substance, and felt like the book didn’t quite carry out the promise of its premise. When he vaulted into screenwriting with 28 Days Later, I was somewhat fortified by what was a stronger story, but he won/lost me withSunshine–a near-classic in my view, which set up a fascinating premise and vision that he demolished by the third reel with some unfortunate plotting decisions. So, for me, there’s a real sense of liking what Garland comes up with, without always liking where he takes me as a reader/viewer.

That said, Ex Machina, which is Garland’s directorial debut as well, is a masterstroke. I really wanted to like this movie, feared that Garland would blow it, but was gratified to find that he nailed it. This is easily the best SF movie of the year, since I can’t imagine anybody topping it.

I won’t toss out a spoiler-laden recapping of the movie, but will simply say that the voyage of Nathan, Ava, Kyoko and Caleb is stunningly, marvelously expressed in this indie SF movie. Alicia Vikender’s Ava is a revelation, with the actress’s ballet background used to uncanny effect to provide a measured, deliberate nature to her movement that conveys the artificial intelligence of Ava in an unspoken manner.

Oscar Isaac’s breezily bullying Nathan is a stunning performance — never has Dr. Frankenstein been more smoothly portrayed onscreen, and Isaac’s coolio confidence and effortless “bro” posturing is carried off with as much aplomb as Vikender’s icy Ava. From the shaved head to the serious beard to the weightlifting contrasted with his casually confrontational manner, Isaac owns every scene he’s in.

Sonoya Mizuno’s Kyoko occupies a key supporting role within the story, acting in a role that is effectively pantomime, saying much without saying a word, and her gaze and poses and dance moves add to the creepy atmosphere of this movie. The dance scene that’s already circulating through the Net, where she and Isaac get their creepy/funny groove on is mesmerizing.

The movie manages to occupy the sweet spot between creepy, groovy, and funny, which only makes sense if you watch it. The tension ramps up with the laconic dread, even as Ava attempts to manipulate Caleb with her ersatz feminine wiles. There’s so much to talk about with this movie, and it presents them so off-handedly, it’s hard to find anything Garland could have improved upon. He got it right, and I salute him for doing so.

Ex Machina is a worthy addition to SF moviemaking, and a great leap forward in AI and issues associated with it in film. Loved it!