Release Date: September 2nd, 2016
Director: Luke Scott
Release Format: Theatrical
While watching Luke Scott’s Morgan, I found myself facing a question very similar to the one the characters pose. How much of this film feels human? All the pieces of a great sci-fi popcorn flick are in place. A group of talented character actors, along with a confined and creepy setting and some hard hitting action. At many points, it convinced me that it was in fact, the movie it’s trying to be. Yet, there’s something off about it. Certainly not bad, but not completely right either.
The film centers on Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a corporate risk-management consultant brought in to assess a groundbreaking project. A group of scientists has created artificial life in Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), a genetically engineered “human.” However, Morgan has developed violent tendencies, attacking one of her most friendly doctors (Jennifer Jason Lee) seemingly at random. As such, Weathers believes that Morgan must be terminated, much to the dismay of the scientists that care for her. Most invested of all is Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), who has placed hope in Morgan’s mind of a future beyond her cage.
There are certainly many interesting ideas at play here. Granted, questioning the value and emotional cognizance of artificial intelligence is nothing new, but there are a few wrinkles here. Morgan might still be learning what emotions are, but she very clearly is experiencing them. Despite being only five years old, at the end of the day, she is a scared teenage girl. The film does a great job of providing distinct points of view on Morgan but doesn’t always present them well. The first act is painfully slow, employing some awfully clunky “tell don’t show” storytelling. This is the film at its most artificial. Since Lee is brought in as our audience avatar, everything needs to be explained to her. There’s a lot of speechifying about Morgan’s early life experiences, but we only get small glimpses. Perhaps the scientists should’ve been our main characters, with Lee in a supporting role.
If you’re going to have this much exposition, there had better be some great actors to deliver it. Fortunately, Morgan has a cast full of underrated performers who get a chance to shine. Mara, in particular, is absolutely magnetic here. There’s an alluring mystery to her cold, almost asexual persona. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy continues to be one of Hollywood’s best recent discoveries. Her fantastic turn in The Witch was certainly not a fluke. There’s a certainly a degree of iciness to Morgan as well, but it’s coupled with a great deal of confusion. In every emotional moment, we see her struggling with what her feelings even mean. She’s also incredibly threatening despite her fairly small build. Meanwhile, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and Rose Leslie are all solid, while Paul Giamatti nearly runs away with the movie in an incredible ten-minute exchange with Morgan.
When Morgan does start to pick up some steam, it switches gears into a full-on action movie. While it could be seen as a fairly jarring switch, it’s also a lot of fun. What sells it is a consistency in tone. The same detached, clinical aesthetic that Scott gives the rest of the film is still there, it’s simply applied to the violence. The kills here are wonderfully brutal, and convey a sense of genuine pain. However, unlike his father Ridley (who absolutely landed him this gig), he’s not a particularly competent action director. There’s a great deal of irritating shaky-cam during the many one on one scuffles. It feels like classic patchwork to cover up stunt doubles, and ultimately taints what otherwise becomes a pretty intense film.
There are certainly a lot of cobbled together pieces of much better movies in Morgan. It’s only natural, considering the director’s father helmed a fair few of those movies. It’s a film clearly made from a director honing his skills on a first feature. There’s a lot of potential, but it’s very rough around the edges. If only the rest of the film comprised the same amount of tension as the Paul Giamatti sequence. With that said, it does deliver the goods once it stops trying to be smart, and becomes a popcorn movie. It’s rare that the dumber parts of a film comprise the better portion of it, but I suppose there are surprises in every science experiment.