What is it with movie scientists determined to play god and create life? Haven’t they seen a Frankenstein movie or read the book (or at least listened to the book on tape)? I mean, it’s a pretty simple moral dilemma: don’t do it. These stories never end well. So it comes as no particular surprise that the genetically engineered moody teen with creepy eyes in Morgan is indeed bad news. The movie is yet another run through these motions and one so strikingly similar to last year’s rather brilliant AI creation nightmare Ex Machina that it feels extra disappointing. You can’t help but be reminded of a better version of this story that you saw oh-so recently.
Kate Mara stars as a corporate risk assessor sent out to an isolated castle/science facility to take a peek at a new experiment gone wrong. That experiment is the titular Morgan, a bio engineered creepo creation (played rather wonderfully by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) that in five short years has shown remarkable physical and intellectual abilities, but just can’t hold it together emotionally. She moves and acts like a moody teen, with a childlike sense of innocence and unexpected explosions of violence. Her scientist creators (Toby Jones and Michelle Yeoh) speak of her like proud parents, while the psychologists monitoring her mind are mildly less enthused (especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is missing an eye following one of Morgan’s outbursts). Mara is too cold to be swayed by the scientists pride though. She knows something is up and you better believe that things will go horribly and bloodily wrong by the end of this thing. Especially after Paul Giamatti shows up to start prodding the girl with uncomfortable questions.
First the good news: Morgan looks great. Luke Scott has clearly inherited the eye of his father Ridley and his uncle Tony. He’s even done some second unit directing on poppa bear’s most recent blockbusters, so the guy knows how to frame with style and atmosphere. There’s a palpable sense of unease from the first shot and the newest director from the Scott clan knows how to get under his audience’s skin while still crafting beautiful images. He also cast the movie quite well and there are some strong performances, particularly from Taylor-Joy who has a knack for other worldly innocence/malice, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who does moody innocence as well as anyone. The big stand off scene between Taylor-Joy and Giamatti is a damn good bit of work from all concerned, but unfortunately it’s the peak of the movie and comes far too early. All roads lead downhill and into predictability from there.
The biggest trouble with Morgan is that the movie promises much more than it actually delivers. It wants to be think piece science fiction, but doesn’t have much to say. There’s also a big twist hanging over things that is far too easy to predict. Despite all of the pretty pictures, strong character actors, ideas, and atmosphere, Morgan is ultimately just a big dumb sci-fi/horror romp and not a particularly good one. Eventually it all falls into bloody stalk n’ slash nonsense. Scott always ensures that nonsense looks pretty and even sneaks in a couple decent scares, however, there’s no denying that it’s sad to watch this thing devolve into fairly cliché B-movie drivel. Sure there’s nothing wrong with B-movie drivel, just not in a movie that’s attempting to act like an A-level classy genre piece.
Morgan probably could have been a decent little indie with ambition. As a medium budget studio picture populated by a sea of recognizable faces, it feels like a big ol’ missed opportunity. There’s so much more that could have been done with this concept and these resources, as evidenced by last year’s Ex-Machina, which did everything Morgan does better and actually had a few interesting things to say. Oh well. At least the movie isn’t completely horrible. The script might be a stinker, but it was brought to life by a director with promise and an overqualified cast. Viewed with the right level of lowered expectations, it’s a decent time waster that at least attempts to pretend it’s something more than that. Given that the film was released in that crap movie zone between the end of the summer blockbusters and the beginning of the fall prestige pictures, I suppose it’s a pleasant surprise. Morgan is not a particularly good movie, but then again this is a time of year when most movies are just straight up garbage. So it could be worse—which isn’t much, but at least it’s something.