Wears a hoodie. Plays her music at an excruciatingly high volume. Fed up of being cooped up indoors. Glowers at authority figures with simmering hostility. Yes, Morgan’s just your average teenager, really – apart from the small detail that she’s a genetically-engineered super-being with powers of precognition and an unaccountable affinity for martial arts.
Morgan, played with pleasing intensity by Anya-Taylor Joy, resides behind bullet-proof perspex in a concrete bunker deep underground. Created for hazy purposes by a futuristic corporation, Morgan’s only five years old, but her rapid rate of growth means she looks much older. Over those five years, the scientists charged with looking after and monitoring Morgan have formed an emotional attachment to the super-powered youth; among them you’ll find Dr Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), her surrogate father figure, and Amy (Rose Leslie), who becomes a kind of big sister.
When another doctor, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, winds up in bed with a nasty injury to one eye, the corporation that owns Morgan starts to get a bit twitchy. It dispatches the coldly efficient Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a “risk assessor”, to decide whether the whole Morgan project ought to proceed.
Coolly shot by Luke (son of Ridley) Scott, Morgan looks like a more expensive film than its $8m might suggest. The cast is top-notch, too, though Anya-Taylor Joy – who was similarly impressive in this year’s slow-burn horror, The Witch – is the only actor who really has a chance to cut through the grey steeliness of screenwriter Seth Owen’s dialogue. Jennifer Jason Leigh has little to do other than lie in bed and grumble, Michelle Yeoh plays a Chinese scientist in a couple of scenes, while acting heavy weights Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti are given little more than cameos.
Mark Patten’s cinematography adds an air of class to a story that is a chimera of other “powerful creations stuck in labs” movies, including The Fly II, Species and Splice. Morgan shoots for a more cerebral tone than those genre pieces – this is closer to something like Hanna or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina – but the plot lacks the pathos or the suspense to sustain its measured pace.
The result is a movie that is neither satisfying as a gory, brainless night out nor smart enough to function as a thought-provoking character study. Morgan’s curious gothic setting – the lab’s located next to a Victorian house like something out of Psycho – fails to add much, while the characters that inhabit the place spend much of the movie doing daft, inexplicable things. Kate Mara’s fine as the film’s co-star, but Scott never quite decides whose movie this is; Morgan’s the title character, but she isn’t in the movie enough, or three-dimensional enough, to carry the film as Alicia Vikander’s Eva did in Ex Machina. Like everyone else, Morgan passes in and out of the frame as the plot requires; there are some characters, such as Boyd Holbrook’s bestubbled chef, Skip, who appear so infrequently that it’s easy to forget about them altogether.
After a talky first hour, Morgan admittedly changes gear in the final third, and the film serves up some low-key yet decent action sequences. Whether you’ll find the third-act pay-off particularly satisfying, however, will probably depend on how familiar you are with all the other sci-fi films that riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Although far from a bad film, Morgan is nevertheless a disappointing one, given the pedigree of its cast. The idea at the Morgan’s core – a disparate group of scientists who forge a parental bond with their own creation – should have been the basis for an emotionally-charged, perhaps even heart-wrenching story. Instead, the movie’s strikingly akin to its title character and the corporate troubleshooter sent to investigate her: sleek, precise, yet too cold for comfort.
Morgan is out in UK cinemas now.