Ex-soldier returns for a secret mission with a small group of new teammates who get picked off one-by-one… sounds like the usual, but it’s got some neat twists that make it play more like a prequel to Under the Skin. Natalie Portman is a scientist (unsubtly reading the Henrietta Lacks book in flashback) who volunteers to go into the “shimmer,” an alien-comet-infected zone of lifeform transformation and combination, searching for whatever has freaked-out and half-killed her soldier husband Oscar Isaac.

“Very few of us commit suicide, but we all self-destruct” – musings on life and death and states in between, as they pass beautifully mutated flora and flee from horrific bear-creatures that imitate human screams. The second half of the film has the trailer music, themes played on a sampling keyboard programmed with the Inception Sound, but the first half is surprisingly full of acoustic guitar, as the team struggles to make a plan when some want to turn back and their sense of time and direction is disoriented. The white girl with the weakest distinguishing characteristics (Tuva Novotny) dies first, fortunately. Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) gets paranoid and ties up the others before her face is ripped off by a screaming bear. A very young-looking Tessa Thompson gives herself up to the transformative space and becomes a tree. Team leader Jennifer Jason Leigh and Portman carry on, and Portman discovers a shimmery humanoid that learns how to imitate her before the real Portman dies from a fire grenade, same as her late husband, and the Alien Portman joins the Alien Husband outside the zone.

Domhnall Gleeson (time travel kid in About Time) is invited to social-media mogul Llewyn Davis’s mountain tech-mansion to evaluate android Ava (Alicia Vikander of The Danish Girl and Testament of Youth). But who is evaluating whom? Who’s really calling the shots here? And who… ah nevermind, after much slow-paced intrigue, she kills Llewyn, locks Domhnall in the house and escapes.

I had such hope from the opening scene, most efficient setup/backstory ever, then pacing goes to hell in the saggy middle, consisting mostly of halting, whispered conversations in unadorned rooms. Nice throwaway bit on global surveillance, as Llewyn casually spies on the entire human race to get data for his AI. Suffers in comparison to Her, but Vikander and her Ava-body effects make the movie worth watching.

Also when Llewyn dances with his robo-assistant:

Dissolve:

[Gleeson] makes a perfect fit for what seems to be Garland’s favorite role: the Nice Guy whose self-effacing charisma hides a deeply selfish, narcissistic core. But [Llewyn] is Ex Machina’s most important player, tasked with most reliably drawing and repelling Caleb and the audience, and giving the story its spine. He’s the one responsible for selling the film’s queasiest undercurrent: a feeling that if this is what humanity looks like, we’re definitely better off with artificial, alien, inhuman intelligences in charge.