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  • Courtesy photo / A24 Films

    Alicia Vikander stars as Ava in "Ex Machina."

  • Courtesy photo / A24 Films

    Domhnall Gleeson, left, and Oscar Isaac appear in a scene from "Ex Machina."

  • Courtesy photo / A24 Films

    Domhnall Gleeson appears in a scene from "Ex Machina."

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Alex Garland has been spinning some quality screenplays over the past few years, serving as the writer behind “28 Days Later,” one of the best zombie movies made before the genre was beaten to death, as well as more sci-fi-grounded fare, like 2007’s “Sunshine.” He also gave the world the wonder that is “Dredd,” a movie that proved you CAN build a solid film on slow motion shots of a scowling Karl Urban shooting bad guys in the face.

Garland’s latest flick is “Ex Machina,” a far more subdued sci-fi feature than most of his previous work, and also marks his first time sitting in the director’s chair. The movie deals with the creation of artificial intelligence, a concept not too unfamiliar in the sci-fi genre, but really drives home the moral implications and questions that should be asked of such a breakthrough — more than the thrill or drama of focusing on some beefcake deathbot bent on destroying all humans.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer who wins a lottery to spend a week with the reclusive, erratic and undeniably genius CEO of the tech company he works for, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac. After having Caleb sign away what amounts to any hope for future privacy with an uber-NDA, Nathan reveals the reason for all the secrecy: Ava, the world’s first artificial intelligence.

Or at least as close as anyone has come so far. Nathan tasks Caleb with verifying that Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is indeed a true artificial intelligence by conducting a Turing test. If the android’s behavior can’t be distinguished from that of an ordinary human being, then the test is passed.

While “Ex Machina” pulls no punches in forcing the viewer to think on the philosophical quandaries that would be brought about by the creation of true AI, it doesn’t get its head stuck in the clouds or leave the audience scrambling to keep up. As Caleb’s test progresses, he and Nathan bounce questions back and forth between each other, presenting new ideas of what Ava’s behavior could mean, and at the same time keeping the viewers caught up in the loop. There’s no struggle to piece together what each little quirk or question the android poses could potentially mean.

Aside from crafting a smart sci-fi story, “Ex Machina” is helped along by two great performances by Isaac and Vikander. Ava exists in a space right on the edge of the uncanny valley: eerie enough to leave the audience a bit creeped out, but genuine enough to generate sympathy. And Nathan is just a ridiculous embodiment of pomp, eccentricity and menace; sure, he’s a pretty brazen asshole, but he throws so many engaging questions at Caleb that his intelligence has to be respected.

“Ex Machina” is an intelligent movie that makes sure not to alienate the audience by getting ahead of itself. It creates an engaging line of questions as Caleb’s test progresses, and each new discovery he makes can be threaded back through previous interactions with both Ava and Nathan to try and determine their motivations. Garland has set the bar pretty high with his first directing effort.

Sam Nixon’s ‘Words From a Nerd’ runs every Wednesday in the Colorado Daily. 

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