The biggest problem with ‘Morgan’ is that it’s not ‘Ex Machina’, yet comes out so soon after Alex Garland’s brilliant robo-Frankenstein tale that it’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons. It’s still quite well made for a debut feature by a new director. (Granted, it helps when your dad is Ridley Scott and can get you some cash.)
The movie also feels a little hollow when held up against a far superior and undeniably similar work, but at least it’s not a disaster. For any movie coming out in between the final summer blockbusters and the fall awards onslaught, that qualifies as a minor miracle.
Our hero is Lee Weathers, a “corporate risk management consultant,” which isn’t exactly an exciting job description, but she’s played by Kate Mara which helps quite a bit. She’s been invited to a super secret and isolated compound to sneak a peek at a classified science project. That project is the titular Morgan, a genetically engineered superhuman played by Anya Taylor-Joy (‘The Witch’). She’s only five-years-old, but has shown remarkable physical and intellectual development that wows her creators.
Unfortunately, Morgan’s emotional development isn’t quite as impressive. The first sign is her moody teen hoody, the second being the unpredictable bursts of violence that don’t exactly suit her usual sweet and childish temperament. Lee is aided by a pair of doctors played by Toby Jones and Michelle Yeoh, who are quite protective of their creation. Things clearly aren’t right from the start and only get worse when a new doctor played by Paul Giamatti arrives to prod Morgan with questions and test her temperament, which doesn’t exactly go well.
The setup is suitably creepy with a handful of hard sci-fi questions baked in and ripe for exploration. Luke Scott shares his father’s (and uncle’s, for that matter) sense of meticulous framing and eerie moodiness. The tone is both unsettling and thoughtful, suggesting both intriguing ideas and scares are to follow. Unfortunately, the movie never really delivers much in the way of either. Its intriguing setup is ultimately little more than a series of empty promises. It teases out notions of morality, creation, and playing god without really paying many of them off. The movie eventually heads towards a series of bloody set-pieces, but not particularly good ones. By the time the flick shifts purely into the horror genre, it almost feels like the filmmakers have admitted defeat. They had no particularly intellectual finale in mind, so they just go for a bloodbath instead, and the strong cast are little more than lambs to the slaughter, not actual humans.
For a while, that cast is well used. Although Jones and Yeoh are stuck in thankless obsessive scientist roles, they’re good at it. The same can be said for Jennifer Jason Leigh (who’s missing an eye thanks to one of Morgan’s outbursts) and Rose Leslie as a pair of psychologists who aren’t quite so impressed by the lab experiment. Much of the movie is spent between Mara’s cold-as-ice corporate goon and Taylor-Joy’s equally cold science experiment. They share many scenes together separated by safety glass, with the mirror image symbolism hammered home so hard that even audiences in neighboring theaters will get it.
Taylor-Joy is enjoyably creepy and mysterious, though. She’s easily the best part of the film. The sequence where Giamatti pushes her to her limits is so damn effective that it makes the rest of the movie feel like a bit of a waste. There was quite an effective psychological horror movie with thought experiment sci-fi underpinnings to be made here. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. (Well, only when it was called ‘Ex Machina’ anyway.)
Still, as disappointing as ‘Morgan’ might be, at least it’s not a complete failure. The movie has some clever ideas and the cast is so overqualified for the half-baked screenplay that they often elevate material that doesn’t deserve it. Scott shoots it quite well, and even if the final act genre shift feels forced, he sneaks in some decent scare beats. For an undercooked late summer dump of a studio movie, it could be a hell of a lot worse. Sure, it should have been a hell of a lot better, but given how low cinematic expectations are this time of year, that’ll have to do.