One of these days, someone is going to have to open up a support group for mad movie scientists. In recent years especially, it feels like we’ve had a surplus of would-be Victor Frankensteins, from Oscar Isaac as the sweaty frat-bro version of a God Complex in Ex Machina to Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley’s noble effort to win the Worst Parents of the Year Award in Splice. Now with Morgan, the first film from director Luke Scott, we have a whole family of docs convinced that their little Morgan, a synthetically grown something, is the greatest something since sliced bread (or reanimated corpses). Venture a guess how it turns out for them?
The film itself opens on the curious idea that “Morgan,” who is five-years-old but already appears a teenager, has had her first malfunction. Like any child, pre or present-adolescence, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is capable of throwing temper tantrums. It’s just that her hissy-fit involved taking one of Dr. Kathy Grieff’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) eyes as a souvenir. Hence, the corporate company paying for Morgan’s genetic creation has sent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), an empty suit tasked with assessing financial risks for the conglomerate, to gauge whether Morgan is worth keeping alive or if they should just terminate her and start from scratch. Think of the lawyer in Jurassic Park being the main character, save for much younger and with an icy stare that suggests she is as cutthroat as any manmade monster.
But while it is technically Lee Weathers’ story, the most interesting dynamic is how the scientists around Morgan react. Led by Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), this group of isolated eggheads have been working on the Morgan project for eight years in the Canadian wilderness, the past five of which has involved watching her grow from baby to precocious young woman. Of course when corporate is around, they can’t call her a woman or a “she” since it has no rights as a company product. But it’s easy to see that the other friendly faces at the lab, including Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, and Rose Leslie, disagree. Leslie’s Amy is particularly protective of Morgan, having taken her into the woods several times, promising that one day they could see a lake that is just off the company’s private property.
Perhaps this is why Morgan is so upset after her latest outbreak, which caused Weathers to confine her to a glass cage for study… where she’ll remain until Weathers can deem if Morgan is worth keeping around at all.
Morgan is an interesting film, not least of all because of the talented ensemble that fills out an otherwise familiar narrative. Luke Scott, who before Morgan was a second unit director on The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings, has been able to assemble a lot of familiar for his first movie, adding some needed gravitas. Of special note is Michelle Yeoh’s mysterious maternal figure. One senses that she might love Morgan more than the rest of them in her few scenes, yet she is also the weariest of the communal daughter.
Anya Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, is having a tremendous career breakout in 2016. Having starred as the focal point in The Witch, an art-chiller that might still be the best film of the year, she proves herself to be just as good as Morgan, the eponymous creature that almost everyone else sees as a frightened little girl. Despite all the emotional distress and sympathy that comes with being forced to tap dance for her supper (or life), there’s always something working beneath the dark eyes, suggesting survival above all else. The performance walks a thin line between innocence and primal horror. Scott’s visual choice for Morgan to be human-looking is likewise clever since it wisely underplays the potentially ominous reason Morgan was created.
However, the word “potential” is frustratingly appropriate, because for all its conceptual and performing qualities, the film is fundamentally flawed. With a screenplay by Seth W. Owen, Morgan makes the poor choice of revisiting the literary genesis of all science fiction from Mary Shelley’s pen, and then presents that story as a mystery. Consequently, despite every obvious twist and turn, the basic reason for the narrative–Morgan’s scientific purpose–is kept ambiguous until the final few scenes of the movie.
Audiences will likely deduce Morgan’s origins after the first scene, but the choice to downplay that logic, makes all of the characters’ subsequent motivations desperately muddied and often confounding. Science fiction is at its best when it uses far-flung ideas to say something about the present world with absolute clarity. Last year’s Ex Machina was not revelatory because it told the story of a robot escaping and attacking humans (hint: we all saw that coming). It instead addressed new and fascinating opinions about AI, personhood, and even a life online.
By contrast, Morgan does not have much to say at all other than going through its well-worn story beats and tropes with the utmost earnestness, causing all of the characters besides Morgan to feel dramatically underused. A more ambitious script would have sought to do something weirder with Morgan’s relationships with these people. Yet in spite of hinting at so many challenging possibilities, the film elects the most straightforward and uninspiring path every time.
The one exception is when Paul Giamatti cameos as Dr. Alan Shapiro, the shrink who’s come to evaluate Morgan’s humanness. One senses in this scene that Scott is thematically trying to explore ideas only hinted at in his father’s vastly superior Blade Runner. But even when the theatrical fireworks explode in this admittedly exciting tête-à-tête, nothing much comes of it other than the sequence playing out with bloody familiarity.
In the end, Morgan had thunderous potential, but it is content with never looking past its monster’s own watery reflection, a feat Boris Karloff surpassed a long time ago.