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"Ex Machina" is a tense tale of artificial love so intelligently crafted and edgy that I adored it myself. It juxtaposes several kinds of stories like a Chinese puzzle. It's a coherent, suspenseful film noir battle of wills, and a beauty vs. beast gender fable. It's an eerie futurist boy-meets-girl story, and a stylish psychological thriller.

Juggling these scenarios is sci-fi novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland, who scripted Danny Boyle's stunning "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine." This film, visually awesome yet never swamped by its special effects, gives Garland an equally impressive directorial debut.

It opens in an era not so far from where we are today, a confusing time of economic, technical and ethical upheaval. Nathan Bateman, the self-involved CEO of a Google-like global Web crawler, runs every aspect of life that he can claim like a program he personally designed. Brilliant and overbearing, he has retreated to a fortress of solitude, a soulless retreat somewhere cool and far from sight.

Sentient robot: Powerful as Nathan is, he needs his apprentice Caleb, a boyish, sensitive 26-year-old programmer, to test his latest creation, a sentient, talking robot.

Caleb, meet Ava. She — it? — is a polite android of stunning physical beauty and emotional charisma.

How might such a technology ripple out into the real world? Caleb's assignment is to study Ava with the famous Turing Test, determining if the machine's behavior equals an alert human's. "If that test is passed," Nathan says, "you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man." "If you've created a conscious machine," Caleb replies, "it's not the history of man. That's the history of gods." It's a comment Nathan likes a lot.

Cast: The cast includes Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, each playing a rich, clever, three-dimensional part. Vikander's Ava seems less a menacing presence than Isaac's shady but honest Nathan. With eyes wide open and disturbingly blank, he may have become a demented genius like "Apocalypse Now's" Col. Kurtz.

Gleeson's Caleb, in his way as isolated as Nathan, is pushed by Nathan and pulled by Ava. (Gleeson and Vikander are perfect as the couple; they played socially awkward man and beautiful wife in "Anna Karenina.") Which of them demonstrates real humanity, and who is winning the three-level chess match of their mind games, are questions that grow more unpredictable in each beautifully composed scene.

Can we evolve as well as Ava Vikander moves with such balletic grace that the quiet whirring of her gears hardly intrudes. She seems just as innocent as Caleb appears to be painfully human, examining the seductive waif each day with growing tenderness.

She asks, "What happens to me if I fail the test?" When Caleb replies, "It's not up to me," Ava responds, "Why is it up to anyone?"

Garland makes us wonder if artificial intelligence is a bigger threat than the artifice of human beings.

Much of the action takes place in Nathan's facility, which echoes the sterile, icy feeling of Kubrick's "2001," but several scenes of light shining across trees near the remote retreat evoke Terrence Malick, implying that nature thrived before humans appeared, and may outlive us, too.

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