Alicia Vikander as an advanced robot named Ava in Ex Machina

Once again, a sci-fi flick is asking the burning question: Is romance possible between man and machine?

In 2013, Her made the prospect seem inviting, especially since the machine was represented by the warm (if disembodied) voice of Scarlett Johansson.

Ex Machina offers a darker look at the same topic. This time around, we can see the machine, a personable and gorgeous robot named Ava (the FX-enhanced Alicia Vikander). But the protagonist meets her under circumstances so threatening that he’s justifiably leery of giving in to the feelings she arouses.   

Writer/director Alex Garland (28 Days Later…) has devised a suspenseful film that keeps the protagonist—not to mention the viewers—guessing until the final moments.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young computer geek who has won a contest thrown by his company’s wealthy owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). His prize is a visit to Nathan’s secluded estate and the chance to take part in a scientific breakthrough.

Nathan claims he’s invented an “AI”—that is, a robot who has the ability to “think” in such a human-like manner that she could be mistaken for a sentient being. Caleb’s task, once he’s signed a contract swearing him to secrecy, is to interact with her so he can determine whether she lives up to Nathan’s claims.

If this all sounds innocent and straightforward, be assured that it’s not.

The first sign of trouble is Nathan’s home, an ultra-modern edifice with electronically sealed doors that may remind James Bond fans of Telly Savalas’s mountaintop lair in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We instinctively know that no one who lives in such a place is completely trustworthy.

But the real tipoff is Nathan himself, a recluse whose outward friendliness can’t mask his impatience with anyone who doesn’t support his agenda—though just what that agenda is remains a mystery. Actor Isaac has shown an ability to reinvent himself for films as diverse as Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year, and he does it again here. His bulked-up Nathan is so irritable and intimidating that we share Caleb’s misgivings about just what he’s gotten himself into.

Those misgivings only grow after Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan. She shares this advice during a power failure that disrupts the home’s surveillance system. Or does it? By this point, Caleb has become so paranoid that he suspects Nathan has manufactured the power failure to trick him into letting his guard down.

The only other character who plays a major role in the drama is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan’s non-English-speaking maid. You don’t have to be prescient to suspect that Kyoko is not what she seems, but her true identity is the least of the tale’s mysteries.  

Ex Machina is beautifully acted, handsomely photographed and perversely sexy. Though it lacks Her’s philosophical depth—don’t expect to leave the theater feeling any more enlightened than you were when you entered—it’s a deviously entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Ex Machina, rated R, opens Friday (April 24) at select theaters nationwide.