A film review by Craig J. Koban September 10, 2016


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.  

It 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 other ideas. 

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 respective characters. 

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. 


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