R, 92 mins.
2016, R, 92 mins.
Kate Mara as Lee Weathers / Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Kathy Grieff / Rose Leslie as Dr. Amy Menser / Michelle Yeoh as Dr. Lui Cheng / Paul Giamatti as Dr. Alan Shapiro / Boyd Holbrook as Skip Vronsky / Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan
Directed by Luke Scott / Written Seth W. Owen
The new sci-fi thriller MORGAN is one of the most frustrating films that I’ve sat through all year.
was a frustrating experience in the sense that there’s definitive talent
behind the camera here in Luke Scott (son of his very famous father
Ridley, making his feature film directorial debut) and an overall premise
that begins with solid promise, only to be completely undone by some truly
insipid scripting in its late stages and a climax that frankly had me shaking my
head. MORGAN has an awful lot
going for it: a few engaging and deeply committed performances, a
confident aesthetic eye, and an evocative sense of atmosphere and
production design. Unfortunately,
the film squanders any attempt to be thoughtful and contemplative science
fiction by devolving into lame and overused horror film troupes in its
third act. Very few films begin so smartly and end so stupidly as much as
this one does.
MORGAN is also
coming in the wake of an infinitely superior – and surprisingly
similar – sci-fi film about the inherent perils of mankind creating life
in EX MACHINA, the brilliantly
conceived and intelligently executed Alex Garland film from last year.
Both films deal with characters engineering artificial beings
(granted, MORGAN’s is an genetically created being and EX MACHINA’s
is a robot), but both stories play out it much the same capacity.
What chiefly segregated Garland’s film well apart from an
overcrowded genre pack was in how it tackled the deep psychological and
ethical quandaries of man playing God and the underlining hubris of those
that try to tackle such an impossible task.
MORGAN wishes to engage in a similar thematic discourse, but it
becomes woefully stuck in B-grade action movie thriller mode just when
it’s about to get genuinely thought provoking.
Also, when is it
ever a good idea for movie scientists to create life, let alone in a top-secret
underground research facility whose existence is only known by a scant
few? Clearly, the characters
that occupy MORGAN have never seen a science fiction film before.
The film opens, yes, in one of these obligatory facilities where a
series of scientists – overseen by Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) – have
created a synthetic human being after years of tireless research…and
many failed prototypes. The
being in question has been dubbed “Morgan” (played in one of the
film’s few solid performances by THE
WITCH’s wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy), who outwardly appears to be
in her mid-teens, but is actually only five-years-old (this amplified
human being has a unique gift for accelerated growth).
Despite a mostly
strange birth and upbringing, Morgan is a fairly stable teenager (or
child?) and bonds well with her handlers, specifically with behaviorist
Amy (Rose Leslie) and project leader Simon (Toby Jones).
Her development hits a major snag when she uncharacteristically
snaps one day and stabs one facility worker (a terribly underused Jennifer
Jason Leigh) in the eye, which forces the lab staff to keep a very
watchful and close eye on their creation, not to mention that the
corporation behind their endeavors has sent out a risk assessment manager,
Lee (a miscast and somewhat comatose Kate Mara), to evaluate whether or
not the project should be shut down. Early
on Lee learns that Morgan certainly is not an unthinking killing machine:
she seems capable of normal human emotion, but one central question
remains - can she fully understand the full meaning of what
it entails to be a responsible and respectable human being?
When another tragedy strikes (involving a brutal and mostly
unprovoked murder perpetrated by Morgan) the lab goes into immediate
emergency shut down. Lee
wishes to swiftly terminate Morgan, whereas some of her handlers have
Luke Scott began
his career working as a second unit director on some of his father’s
last few films, and he certainly demonstrates Ridley’s affinity for
strong visuals. Luke Scott really knows how to capture to stark sensation of
isolation and unease that the lab presents throughout the film; he
effectively makes the film’s sterile environment a character in its own
right. As previously
mentioned, MORGAN opens quite strongly and makes some concentrated
attempts to dive into the thorny nature versus nurture debate that’s at
the essence of Morgan’s existence.
Does she commit spontaneously hellish acts of random violence
because of some sort of predatory and animalistic instinct she was born
with or is she simply processing right versus wrong through the unfiltered
an untrained mind of a child? Has Morgan – perhaps
more chillingly – been inadvertently designed to
be an emotionless killing machine?
The film has so
many tantalizing questions at its core, but Scott and screenwriter Seth W.
Owen seem disinterested in such provocative discourse.
Instead – and rather annoyingly – MORGAN descends into
standard-order action/horror mode during its final 20-30 minutes, which
involves seemingly intelligent characters making some rather brainless and
illogical decisions. Ultimately,
the film becomes a cat and mouse chase picture that's splattered
with sensationalistic violence and gore, all but robbing any semblance of
soulful introspection into its characters and their dilemmas.
MORGAN also culminates with a rather large plot twist that’s
really not altogether surprising in the slightest, especially for how it’s ineptly
telegraphed very, very early on in the proceedings.
Instead of being legitimately wowed and shocked by it, I found
myself in a state of mocking disbelief.
It almost feels that the twist was concocted late in the game here
as a cheap manner of lazily explaining some of the film’s more puzzling
and illogical gaffes, particularly present in one key character.
I hate it when films cheat their way to a finale.
It’s all quite
a shame, because I do think that Scott has a definitive career in front of
him as a filmmaker. I also like Anya Taylor-Joy’s titular performance for how
it captures Morgan’s childlike naiveté while imbuing her with an
ethereally sinister edge that’s deeply unnerving.
Paul Giamatti also turns up in a very sublime scenery chewing Paul
Giamattian performance as a psychologist that has to interview Morgan and
question her understanding of morality and right and wrong in what's
easily the film’s most breathlessly enthralling scene. Other performers don’t fare so well, like Mara, an
appealing looking actress, to be sure, that’s so demure and understated
here that you feel like reaching out at the screen and checking her for a pulse. Toby Jones and
Michelle Yeoh are decent in a few key scenes, but aren’t afforded much
to do from a screenplay that seems too reticent to embellish their
MORGAN has so many wonderful ideas to explore, but not a brain in its head to fully explore them. What could have been a thoroughly enthralling expose and cautionary thriller about the risks of bioengineering depressingly becomes a fairly simplistic slasher film. There’s an infinitely shrewder and more fascinating film buried deep within MORGAN’s DNA, but it never fully comes to the forefront. This is a film populated by stellar actors and an assured and natural filmmaking talent quarterbacking it all, but MORGAN's stupefying unraveling of its narrative and eye rolling third act payoff betrays all of them. I would love, though, to see another film from Luke Scott…but only when his skills are married to an equally adept script.