“I won!” exults 24-year-old Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) as he learns he has been summoned to the remote aerie of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his computer company’s Jobsian guru-boss, for a week of … something. A series of experiments, we learn, to test the artificial or actual intelligence of Nathan’s supreme invention, a robot in female form called Ava (Alicia Vikander). But to create a machine with human awareness, Caleb says, is “not the history of men. That’s the history of gods.”
Deus ex machina is the phrase applied to the climactic moment in a classical Greek tragedy when gods would descend from the skies to resolve all knotty human problems. And god, or God, is the word that hovers over Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s pristinely creepy sci-fi film. Nathan, carousing through his lab like a satyr deity, is the Frankenstein who would breathe a self-aware soul into Ava. Caleb is the ambitious assistant who fancies he can free the lovely automaton from her creator. In this Olympian chess game, Ava also has a role: as pawn, queen or grand master.
Ava, the android who could be “more human than human” (as Blade Runner had it), is a sister of sorts to two Scarlett Johansson entities: the OS voice in her and the alien in Under the Skin. As embodied by the luscious, spectral Vikander, Ava is tempting even when she is seen as a pretty face encased in a plastic skull, with metal arms and legs. But as she seems to warm to Caleb, she dons a wig and a print dress, telling him, “This is what I’d wear on our date.” Can a robot fall in love? Could any young human male resist her requests?
Garland, who wrote the scripts for the Danny Boyle fantasies 28 Days Later and Sunshine and who adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s clone novel, Never Let Me Go, makes his directorial debut with a potent sci-fi template: a battle for the future that is also a caustic meditation on the power that men believe they have over women. Distilling these big themes into a hyperbaric chamber piece–one location, three characters, seven days–Garland shows a born auteur’s command of actors and atmosphere. He’s even bold enough to break mood with a frenetic dance that Nathan and Ava perform to Oliver Cheatham’s 1983 R&B hit “Get Down Saturday Night.”
Perhaps that too is a test in the experiment that Garland is conducting on his characters–and on the viewers. Be grateful to be his lab rats, in the year’s most seductive high-IQ drama. If you go, you win.
This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.