Morgan (United States, 2016)

September 02, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Morgan Poster

If Mogan’s DNA exhibits traces of Blade Runner, it’s not coincidental. The film’s director is Luke Scott, Ridley’s son, and the same questions about artificial intelligence, sentience, and humanity can be found in this movie. Morgan also owes debts to last year’s Ex Machina and 2010’s Splice, among others. It’s an attempt to wed philosophical science fiction concepts with bloody horror - a dubious endeavor that somehow works. The movie doesn’t seek to be a mindless gore-fest but neither does it show restraint when it comes to violence.

Hard-core horror fans may find Morgan too slow. The first half has a body count of zero and features far more talking and philosophizing than action. One of science fiction’s most enduring tropes - the question of when advanced AI crosses the line into new life - is explored. The subject is Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), the product of a think-tank of scientists whose names all begin with “Doctor.” Anya’s “Mom” and “Dad” are Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones). Tasked by an unnamed conglomeration to create a perfect weapon, they have tried to give Morgan self-awareness and a conscience. But something has gone wrong. She has attacked one of the scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a cameo) and this has called into question whether the work should continue or whether she should be terminated.

Enter the team of Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), corporate problem solver, and Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), who are brought in to make a determination about what should be done with Morgan. They are viewed with suspicion by Morgan’s closest friend and ally, Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), who believes that people are ultimately responsible for any failings in Morgan. When things start to go wrong and Morgan contrives an escape from her cage, life becomes a fragile and tenuous thing.

Morgan isn’t as smart as Ex Machina but it’s a little more thought-provoking than Splice. The film is light on backstory - we’re given just enough to understand the situation and the relationships among the various scientists. If there’s an obvious deficiency, it’s that Morgan could be better defined. Comparing her to Ava in Ex Machina, she’s undercooked. Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is robotic and almost Terminator-like. The small moments when she shows remorse and sadness, however, allow us to understand (if not sympathize) with Morgan. She’s a victim and that victimization has made her into a killer. She’s neither malicious nor gratuitous in her actions; she’s fulfilling a survival instinct. Kate Mara’s Lee Weathers is a model of ruthless efficiency. No one else has a lot to do, although Rose Leslie and Paul Giamatti have standout moments.

The third act contains a surprise (of sorts) that, when revealed, fills in a few plot holes. As twists go, this one is possible to predict (one can argue that the script cannily drops enough clues that viewers who are paying attention will figure it out beforehand) but expecting it doesn’t lessen its impact or importance. Morgan’s raison d'être isn’t defined by this narrative shock. It and its aftermath are logical.

Scott’s directorial debut is workmanlike. Granted a small budget, he wisely relies more on the performances of experienced actors than the few special effects he is able to employ. The action scenes are low key but, as the movie builds toward its conclusion with scenes set in a forest, there’s a palpable sense of tension. Despite being fundamentally a science fiction story, Morgan has strong horror/thriller influences. Looking at the director’s father’s resume (Alien and Prometheus in particular), this shouldn’t be surprising. Morgan is a worthy first feature. Only time will tell whether it becomes a forgotten curiosity, a cult classic, or the calling card of a director who moves on to bigger things.

Morgan (United States, 2016)

Director: Luke Scott
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Boyd Holbrook, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti
Screenplay: Seth W. Owen
Cinematography: Mark Patten
Music: Max Richter
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2016-09-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1