‘Ex Machina’
Director:
Alex Garland
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Ex Machina” is a film of ideas, which is to say it’s not as smart as it thinks it is. Granted, that has more to do with its ambitions, which are mighty, versus what it actually achieves, which is still a fair amount. The tale of a shy programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) hired by his tech giant boss (Oscar Isaac) to investigate the humanity of his new robot (Alicia Vikander), it burdens itself with a heavy load: it’s a sci-fi chamber piece that examines artificial intelligence and scientific ethics, as well as an at least wannabe-feminist tract, and maybe an actual one, which may be more sly than it sometimes lets on. Or maybe it’s just a cowardly button-pusher, something that starts debates but has no coherent text of its own.

Whatever it is, it’s at least sufficiently slow and steady, allowing the space for ideas to ping around. The quietest scenes are the talkiest: the “Turing Test” sessions between Gleeson’s Caleb — helicoptered out to a secret forest lab — and Vikander’s Ava. She’s forced to be open about what she is: her only recognizable body parts are her hands, feet and face. Everything else is clearly a machine. But her face, which is to say Vikander’s, is mesmerizingly expressive, and she speaks in a manner that delicately navigates the human and artificial. Every great now and then Vikander gives Ava a robotic twitch, but she otherwise moves and converses with grace. It’s no wonder Caleb falls for her, seriously contemplating the notion of an alternative computer love. After all, Ava may have been created, but so were we all.

“Ex Machina” overplays its philosophical hand a few too many times and yet simultaneously leaves so much under-touched-upon, if not ignored. At its best it lets us do the thinking while finding clever ways not to get too undergrad. Case in point: Isaac’s Nathan is not just a tech world superstar; he’s a bro with a casual drinking problem, introduced working off a brutal night on a punching bag and bandying about the word “dude.” (He may very well be the most original screen mad scientist.) If we’re being cynical, we could say Nathan’s boozing works wonders when the screenplay runs into walls; if he needs to do something stupid, one can always say he was drunk or nursing a hangover. But Nathan also gives “Ex Machina” a needed goofiness that takes the edge off the funereal, heady tone established by novelist-turned-screenwriter and now director Alex Garland (author of “The Beach,” “28 Days Later”). If any film needed a brief, impromptu hip hop dance scene (Isaac, predictably, has moves), it’s one attempting a treatise on the meaning of existence.

As far as its feminist bona fides go, it’s not always clear if it’s genuinely, cleverly progressive or simply a guy’s idea of same. Ava is an object who’s objectified, but also one who’s literally caged up, locked behind an impenetrable glass wall, to be exploited as product by a hubristic man; when she’s no longer serving her purpose, she’ll simply be replaced, her parts reused. This patriarchal nightmare is not a particularly positive look at men — not just Nathan but Caleb, whose own chivalry is borne of condescension (and horniness). Where this is going is another matter. Its final act and what it says about the objectification of women — and especially of women like current Swedish “It” Girl Vikander — is either sarcastically satirical or somewhere between attempted satire and another chance for bros to ogle. (A scene that’s similar to one in “Under the Skin” lacks that film’s defiant anger at screengrab culture.) Up to the end, “Ex Machina” oozes has the illusion of confidence, but it might be little more than a pose.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge