Morgan (2016) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for brutal violence, and some language
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Kata Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Yare, Boyd Holbrook, Paul Giamatti, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson
Small role: Brian Cox
Director: Luke Scott
Screenplay: Seth W. Owen
Review published September 3, 2016
Mix story elements lifted from Ex Machina and Blade Runner, and direct them without any visionary tendencies, and you'll have Morgan. All three films concern whether artificial intelligence has become sophisticated that the artificial constructs may actually something resembling human emotions, though morality, the basic sense of right and wrong, has yet to govern them the way it does for most of us flesh-and-blood types. The director that proves to be, at least at this point of his career, lesser than the likes of Ridley Scott and Alex Garland is first-time helmer Luke Scott, who just so happens to be the son of Ridley himself (Ridley is a credited producer on Morgan). Not that it's entirely Luke Scott's fault, as the screenplay from Seth W. Owen seems more of an attempt at a genre excursion than something designed to wrestle with weighty themes on what it means to be human.
Most of the action takes place, as with Ex Machina, at a large house in a scenic remote location that doubles as an experimental laboratory where scientists are observing the maturation of a synthetic young woman named Morgan (Taylor-Joy), who is five years old in actuality but with the accelerated aging that gives her the appearance of a young woman. The staff there all have fond feelings for Morgan, though that trust is shattered one day when Morgan appears to lash out violently unexpectedly, resulting in severe injuries to one of their own. The corporation behind the experiment sends a risk-management agent to assess the risks of continuing, Lee Weathers (Mara, The Martian), who finds that, despite their fear of a repeat occurrence that has Morgan more or less imprisoned, they rationalize that this outburst is an anomaly, and part of the acceptable risk for the project.
Shot with a washed-out color palette by cinematographer Mark Patten (Blood Orange), who worked as a second-unit director of photography for the last several Ridley Scott theatrical releases, some of the larger pleasures of Morgan come from its overall sense of eerie aesthetic, treading the line between science fiction, thriller, and horror in ways that will likely make it of a certain appeal to anyone who enjoys all three genres. Unfortunately, the editing, especially of the scenes of violent confrontation, are choppily edited and poorly choreographed, diffusing their effectiveness at a time when the film should be at its most exhilarating. Less impactful, but disappointing nevertheless, the overly idealized fashion style given to the characters, ranging from a plush hoodie to an androgynous business suit, are unappealing to the point of distraction.
The other strength comes from an impressive array of character actors, perhaps willing to sign on board as a favor to Ridley; regardless, the film's pace occasionally perks up when veterans like Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) as victim number one and Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton) as a psychologist who determines to deliver something akin to a Voight-Kampff test take center stage in semi-campy performances that the otherwise dour film could have used a bit more of, even if their screen time is very limited. Without the star power, this could easily have been confused with any other run-of-the-mill straight to VOD or basic cable effort. If there's any element of Morgan that will have you wanting to see more in future works, it will be the solid performance from Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role; along with The Witch, she shows she has the talent to go very far as an actress once she can cross over from the horror genre to more mainstream efforts.
Morgan may have a limited audience, primarily among those who don't mind b-movie science fiction, but those who expect their futuristic plunges into artificial intelligence to have something worth discussing on an intellectual or philosophical level will find that this effort doesn't try very hard to spark anything one might with to discuss once the credits roll. There are a few attempts to throw in a surprise or two in the narrative, but many viewers will be able to predict the nature of those reveals long before the halfway point, effectively making the last half hour of the film tedious to follow, particularly when it finally becomes the kind of dark and violent movie you've been anticipating from the outset.
Obviously, if you haven't seen its inspirations, the sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner and the must-see 2015 release Ex Machina, you should see those first. However, given that both of those films cover just about every interesting element of Morgan, once you've checked those out and been thoroughly entertained, there really isn't much need to follow them up with a mediocre rehash, is there?
©2016 Vince Leo