Intelligent life is an arduous process, a beguiling system of biological, emotional and psychological actions that to this day is only partially understood. Creating a life, a unique original being in every way, is certainly no easy task. To a far lesser extent, yet no less difficult, is the process of creating an original work of fiction within a major studio system. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the resultant work may sour, turn against its creators, and become a sad disappointment. This is both the plot and the effect of the new film Morgan, a movie that, much like it’s titular character, struggles to discover why it exists and comes up unsatisfyingly short.
Morgan’s plot is simplistic to the point of tedium, predictable to anyone passingly familiar with the tropes of sci-fi thrillers. An ominous Corporation with a capital “C” sends a chilly representative, Lee (Kate Mara), to investigate the goings on with their latest research investment, a genetic clone/artificial intelligence hybrid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Morgan, prone to mood swings and violent episodes, may be headed for the lethal injection chamber, and the multi-cultural scientists who created her do their damndest to prove that she is a she and not merely an it. Their efforts are entirely misguided, as Morgan has pretty much decided she’s going to escape, and will brutally murder anyone who gets in her way.
If that synopsis sounds too brief, that’s an indication of how it feels to actually watch the film. It rushes from plot point to plot point in a story not exactly chock full of them, and only fleetingly seems interested in developing any of its surplus of characters. Part of the reason for this is that the film is yet another in a long line of studio genre movies built around a “shocking” twist in the last act, in this instance a twist delivered in the final seconds. Granted, it’s one most will see coming a mile away, especially given the typical assumptions of narrative that come along with stories involving robots that look like human beings. In fact, you may already have deciphered the twist just from reading this review. It’s that obvious and dumb.
The other reason for Morgan’s brief length (only 92 minutes!) is that writer Seth W. Owen has constructed a glorified slasher film, which was made into a movie that thinks it’s a gritty intellectual thriller. Some lip service is paid to the concept of creating a being that has emotional responses but is not human, yet the discussions never go beyond surface level mentions. A few emotional cues in the score by Max Richter try to lend some depth, and Taylor-Joy, so fantastic earlier this year in The Witch, does as well as she can with the material, attempting to craft a character out of a being the script treats as a one-note monster. That monster does no more and no less then amble around the research camp killing off her creators one by one, and not with the sadistic ingenuity of the slasher film. Inexplicably, the most action on screen comes from a few awkwardly choreographed martial arts fights between Morgan and Lee (inexplicable, that is, until the final twist occurs, at which point it’s far too little, too late).
The most unfortunate aspect of Morgan is that, given the amount of talent involved, it didn’t have to be this way. Along with the aforementioned cast members, the cast includes fantastic character actors like Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh and Brian Cox. Jennifer Jason Leigh is criminally wasted in a glorified cameo role that only makes you wish you were watching The Hateful Eight instead. The scene, and the character, that registers the most out of the entire film is Paul Giamatti’s, who plays a corporate psychiatrist that arrives to analyze Morgan (so many characters dip in and out of the narrative, the entire movie feels more like a cameo fest than an ensemble piece). His scene is electric, especially compared to the rest of the film. Although it has just as predictable an outcome as any other beat of the story, Giamatti manages to strike some fantastically uncomfortable nuances. Again, though, once the scene is over, it’s back to by-the-numbers business. The climactic car chase and action sequence almost exclusively revolves around all female characters, and this serves only to point out how much better the film could have been if it had been like that from the beginning, with a unique vision instead of excess character baggage. The director of the film is Luke Scott, son of Ridley, nephew of Tony, who is making his feature length debut here. Sadly, he displays none of his father’s knack for hauntingly beautiful visuals, nor his uncle’s talent for direct, economic storytelling.
It’s difficult not to see Morgan as less than the sum of its progenitor’s parts. Most intelligent and engaging films that involve humanity reckoning with artificial intelligence either contain levels of depth and nuance (such as Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey) or use the idea as a jumping off point for entertaining spectacle (as in the Terminator and Matrix films). Morgan even has a recent “twin”, that being Alex Garland’s genius film Ex Machina from last year. That movie similarly contained its action to a drab bunker built within a lush natural landscape, and also had a lot of scenes of people looking grim having discussions through glass walls. Yet in addition to compelling characters, performances, effects, design, and narrative, Ex Machina also had a soul. Morgan does not, and can’t be seen as an intelligent being of its own. Instead it’s a mere hollow shell of a film, a simulacra, an inferior machine.