"Ex Machina" is a psychological thriller that pivots around Ava, a pretty female robot caught between her tyrranical creator and a sensitive young man. Ava's core is made of futuristic circuitry and she walks on servo-powered legs, but the bones of this sci-fi film are ancient. "Ex Machina" is a battle of wits between three classic characters: A mastermind, an underdog and -- though the term only partly fits -- a wily woman.
Oscar Isaac ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") plays Nathan, founder of a popular and lucrative search engine called Bluebook. He invites an employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to take part in a secret experiment: testing Ava (Alicia Vikander) to see if she can pass as human. The notion appeals to Caleb's nerd sensibility, but the more he gets to know this girlish, slightly melancholy computer -- and her surly inventor -- the more he suspects that something is amiss.
"Ex Machina" is written and directed by Alex Garland, author of the novel "The Beach" (adapted into a 2000 film) and screenwriter of "28 Days Later." Caleb is a Garland specialty: very nice, very average, a little lonely. (The character says he's from Brookhaven, by the way.) Nathan calls Caleb "a good kid with a moral compass," though once he arrives in Nathan's sprawling, isolated compound in Alaska, it's clear that he's lost his way.
Coming on the heels of so many films about artificial and computer-enhanced intelligence, "Ex Machina" can feel a little familiar. It even feels a bit old-fashioned, particularly in the wake of "Her," Spike Jonze's groundbreaking film about a human-computer romance. "Ex Machina" plays a little with that dizzying notion, but still has the finger-wagging tone of a "Twilight Zone" episode. Another problem: the slightly second-rate special effects.
Still, Garland establishes an effectively creepy atmosphere and his excellent actors -- even the mostly expressionless Vikander -- make up for the slightly slim story.