Alex Garland is nothing if not versatile; a novelist, screenwriter and producer with a body of work that fluctuates from the great (28 Days Later) to the middling (The Beach, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) to the god-awful (Dredd). With Ex Machina, Garland makes his debut as a director and it might just be the best thing he has ever done. This is intelligent, thought provoking and prescient science-fiction in which the technologies at play do not seem very far removed from developments in the world today and it is this sense of possibility that makes the events of Ex Machina so unsettling. Unlike, say, Star Wars and the like, which are so far removed from the time and place in which we live that we accept them as fantastical and engage with them at that level, Ex Machina is very much in the here and now, delving into the possibilities and perils of artificial intelligence. With a magnificently mesmerising performance from Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, this is a movie that is clever, creepy and utterly captivating. Little time is wasted in getting through the set-up, in which Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a 20-something coder at the world’s largest internet company wins an opportunity to spend a week in the secluded and highly secure mountain retreat of company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Caleb soon learns that there is more to his visit than simply hanging with the boss and he finds himself conducting a Turing Test to determine whether Ava, a robot Nathan has created, can exhibit intelligent behaviour that is indistinguishable from that of a human. Nathan’s choice to house the robot in a female humanoid form becomes apparent over time and Caleb finds himself drawn to Ava (Vikander) in more than a purely scientific sense. The interactions between Caleb and Ava are fascinating and Vikanders’s embodiment of her character’s mannerisms is remarkable. Such is her personification of Ava, it is very easy to believe that this is an actual robot rather than a real person embellished with some exquisite digital effects. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when Caleb also finds himself conflicted about how he does feel, as opposed to how he is supposed to feel, about Ava. Is she a prisoner? Is that even possible if she is a robot? Is she manipulating him? Caleb is a smart, nerdy nice guy who finds himself being manipulated by the arrogant Nathan, a man who, despite his untold wealth, has spent so much time with only silent servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) for company that he has become a self-destructive, narcissistic, paranoid and somewhat pathetic individual crippled by his own intellect and exiled in a prison of his own creation. The mad scientist of the new millennium if you will; a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Dr Frankenstein who might ordinarily be the most fascinating character if not for Vikander’s vulnerable portrayal. There is a constant sense of unease that permeates the interactions between Caleb and Nathan and the tension is only enhanced by the sprawling, yet claustrophobic, confines of the concrete abode to which our trio are confined. Garland presents an ending that subverts expectations and sets up the possibility of extending this narrative well beyond the confines – both narratively and physically – of this film. Although not a typical mainstream thriller, Ex Machina is skillfully executed and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It’s a contemplative, engaging exploration of the potential of science and the fine line between good and evil. Furthermore, it is visually striking courtesy of beautiful cinematography from Rob Hardy. Gleeson (About Time, Frank) and Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year) are both fine but, ultimately, it is Vikander who brings the film to life and it is no surprise to learn that she has six films in various stages of production at the moment, in addition to the in-cinemas Testament of Youth. Those who doubt that a first time director could deliver such a seductive, salient science-fiction drama should think again. Having tried his hand at so many things, perhaps it is behind the camera that Garland has found his true calling, although only time will tell if he can do it again.