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The fascination with creating life has long been a popular theme in film, from re-animating the dead to straight up building something new. The Frankenstein-esque story is one that seems, if you’ll forgive the phrasing, always to be revived. And so it is with Morgan, the latest that plays with the same old toys but dresses it in modernity, much like last year’s far superior Ex Machina, yet less effectively.
It begins with a shock. From a camera monitoring a session, we witness a sudden, brutal attack as a young woman strikes at another. She is ‘Morgan,’ (Anya Taylor-Joy) a human hybrid, genetically modified female that is the third attempt to create such a being and is the first incident of violence since her ‘birth.’ It prompts corporate to send Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk assessment specialist, to decide the fate of the program.
Morgan lives in a large glass enclosure but has been raised by a very close-knit ‘family’ that has become extremely protective of her, despite the shocking attack. They refer to her as ‘her’ while Lee resolutely confirms Morgan is an ‘it’. She has no rights. This doesn’t go over well, as the icy Lee seems emotionless, here only about the money and the profit potential. Head of the ‘family’ is Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), two lead scientist who were part of the earlier experiments, and share a tragedy in doing so. The fate of all rest in how Lee manages Morgan.
Directed by Luke Scott, in his debut, the son of legendary Ridley Scott (who produced), there is a lot here that suggests the young director is ready to take up the mantle from his father, with a strong visual style and confident approach that make up the best parts of the film. Scott keeps the pace quick and curious, giving a lot of the look of the story opportunity to share in telling it as well. And yet, it is the story itself that leaves this short of great, a predictable experience that telegraphs much of what will happen well before it does, and doesn’t trust us to accept the challenge the premise promises.
It is the obviousness of it all that ultimately hinders this most. We have no doubts that Morgan is a danger, presented so in the opening scene, so when we flashback and are supposed to believe she is not, it is devoid of suspense since we know who she is. A moment with a deer is perfect example, as is an extended sequence with a psychologist (Paul Giamatti) that is handled completely wrong, building up to an inevitable conclusion that fails because it leads us on a singular path rather than giving us possibilities.
That’s not to say there aren’t some solid moments and even some good performances. Taylor-Joy is well-cast, her impact from this year’s The Witch still resonating enough to make her the most compelling in the film. She retains an innocence and unfamiliarity with humanity convincingly, Morgan being a creature that is taught to be a person rather than one able to experience being a person. Limited by the fierce boundaries of the plot, Taylor-Joy creates a memorable character, a five-year-old trapped in a teenage body dealing with incredible intellect and higher abilities, but it can’t elevate the film to the heights it should.
There are no surprises, and what is meant to be a twist is diminished simply because there is no other outcome it could be. We’ve seen all of this before and what might have been a chance to take this in a more existential direction is squandered in the second half by a potboiler third act that feels like a cheat. Jennifer Jason Leigh is utterly wasted in about two minutes of screen time, feeling more like a victim of the editor than Morgan, and the generic “thriller” score (by Max Richter) barely gives this any momentum. The film is stunted by indecision, where it wants to be something progressive and thought-provoking (its promotional material asked us “What is Morgan?”) but instead offers no challenge and embraces its clichéd second half.
Director: Luke Scott
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Stars: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti