It’s getting to the point where we need a name for this. Setting an entire movie in a single isolated location is not only advantageous in terms of story (ie: the characters are removed from any outside help, thereby raising the tension), but it also allows the filmmakers to explore any number of concepts on a very limited budget. As such, it’s little wonder why we’ve seen a few such sci-fi thrillers in recent memory, and I’d wager that we’ll see more in the years to come.
The latest example of the… um… let’s call it the “laboratory bunker” subgenre is Morgan, the directorial debut of Luke Scott (yes, another one — this time, it’s Ridley Scott’s son). The screenplay comes to us from Seth W. Owen, whose only previous screenplay credit is so obscure that this might as well be his debut. But then we have a tremendous cast, including Kate Mara, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, and Brian Cox, in addition to such promising up-and-comers as Boyd Holbrook, Rose Leslie, and Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role.
Put all of this together, and the results are sadly a lot closer to The Lazarus Effect than Ex Machina.
The story revolves around your typical shady monolithic corporation, particularly one involved with genetic research. More specifically, they’ve been trying to create a human who’s been enhanced past the point of being remotely normal. I should also add that someone put Brian Cox in charge of this company, presumably because he did such a bang-up job with Wolverine and Jason Bourne.
Sure enough, the program eventually yields Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), a five-year-old girl whose growth, intelligence, and physical strength are all wildly beyond her years. Then she goes and maims one of her doctors (Kathy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s left with only one eye as a result. Normally, a security detail would be sent in, but the corporate offices want this handled more quietly and delicately for obvious reasons.
Enter Lee Weathers, played by Kate Mara. She ostensibly works in risk assessment, but the characters practically shout in our ears to let us know that there’s more to Lee than meets the eye. Then again, when Lee arrives at the remote forest compound where Morgan and her doctors have all been living together in isolation for five years, it soon becomes obvious that the whole team is so tight-knit that there’s no telling what secrets or agendas they could be hiding. That isn’t even getting started on Morgan and what’s going through her head.
Anyway, Lee is there on behalf of the corporate overlords to figure out — in light of Morgan’s little tantrum — how the risks and potential benefits weigh out with regards to Morgan’s continued existence. She was supposed to be assisted in this by Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), who came along to do a psych eval on Morgan. Without going into specifics, let’s just say that it doesn’t go well and a lot of people die.
Let’s start with the positives: The cast speaks for itself. Every single actor is perfectly suited to their part, and quite a few of them (Looking at you, Giamatti.) nicely elevate what would otherwise be a lame cookie-cutter role. Even the actors who only get maybe one or two scenes apiece (again, Giamatti) are sure to make every second count. Major kudos are due to Kate Mara, who comes off as a true-blue corporate woman without completely losing her soul; Rose Leslie, whose character compensates for her social deficiencies with a bubbly and eccentric facade; and Anya Taylor-Joy, a young rookie who effectively holds the screen against all the seasoned talents around her.
Speaking of which, it’s worth pointing out that the female characters are easily the strongest ones in this entire cast. Here’s a movie that passes the Bechdel test and the Mako Mori test at least a dozen times over. It’s very refreshing to see that.
Moving on, I was truly impressed with the visuals. A lot of the film is drenched in a dreary blue tint, yes, but there are some outstanding nature shots, and some compositions that use reflections and shadows in striking ways. Additionally, major props to costume designer Stefano De Nardis. From the clean silhouette of Lee Weathers to Morgan’s omnipresent grey hoodie, so much about the characters in this film is conveyed to us by what they wear.
Alas, the visuals are quite notably inferior when it comes to the action scenes. This is especially obvious with regards to the fight scenes, which are shot and edited to be incomprehensible. I mean, I know it’s a tall order to make us believe that Taylor-Joy could whup the asses of full-grown adults twice her size and weight, but presenting the action so we could barely see a thing was not the way to go about that. And then of course we have the typical problem of characters who are perfectly capable of shooting each other, only to decide that doing the smart thing would be too easy.
But then we have my single biggest problem with this movie: Nobody bothers to explain what the point of this is. No, really, why did this corporation create Morgan and how do they hope to make any money off of her? Is this a cloning experiment? Are they making people for organ harvesting? Is this for medical research or pharmaceutical development of some kind?
This is a very basic question, and it’s the foundation of the entire premise. Without that crucial bit of context, we have no way of knowing whether Morgan’s sentience is a bug or a feature. The whole crux of the plot is that the characters have to determine whether Morgan is no longer a viable subject, so the whole movie falls apart unless we know what that metric is.
We know that the company doesn’t want Morgan flying off the handle and killing her own doctors. Makes sense. But if that’s misbehaving, then what does behaving look like? How do they want her to act? What do they want her to do? If she’s supposed to be an emotionally well-adjusted young woman, then why does everyone from corporate (Lee in particular) talk about Morgan like she’s an inanimate piece of company property? Conversely, if Morgan is supposed to be property, then why is all this time and money getting invested into nurturing her emotional growth? None of this makes any sense, which leaves the plot and the characters’ motivations woefully undercooked.
It also ruins the film on a thematic level — if we don’t know what the company wants Morgan to be, then her defiance of the company means nothing. Any statement the film might have made rings entirely hollow because, again, we don’t know what Morgan was created to test or accomplish. As such, no matter how badly the filmmakers clearly wanted to make any number of comments about science, artificial life, artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, etc., the film utterly fails to make any kind of coherent statement about anything.
Now, to be fair, we do eventually learn what Morgan’s program was really all about… in the closing minutes. After the climax. This crucial information was withheld until the film was practically over, all for the sake of a last-minute twist ending. Except that the twist ending had already been so thoroughly telegraphed by that point, it loses all power. Additionally, the film had already drowned in so much bullshit by that point that the revelation actually opens up more plot holes than it closes. And perhaps worst of all, knowing the reason behind Morgan’s creation still didn’t lead to any kind of thoughtful or relevant statement about science or technology. When all was said and done, and the film had presented its big thesis just before the credits, I could only shrug and say “So what?”
Morgan is a terribly infuriating film in that it had absolutely everything in place except a point. The visuals are there, the cast is there, the ambition and creativity are there, even the premise is there. Yet the plot and many of the characters are only barely good enough to be functional, and not nearly developed enough that the audience has a reason to invest in anything onscreen. The characters are salvaged in part by good performances, but that can only go so far.
It’s too stupid to be a work of intelligent science fiction, the fight scenes aren’t coherent enough to serve as a good action movie, and the setups are too glaringly obvious to make for a good suspense thriller. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this film was made by some highly talented people and I wish them all the best, but there’s sadly no way I can recommend it.