MORGAN Review

It's beginning to feel like a trend. This thing where the first hour or so of a film is really promising before deciding to devolve into a predictable and ultimately disappointing piece of genre filmmaking. Directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley Scott) Morgan is familiar and yet for at least the first forty minutes or so is a nicely paced and well-executed look at a premise we've seen many times before, especially in the last few years with the likes of Ex Machina, Lucy, and even this past summer's Stranger Things to a degree. Each of those pieces of entertainment analyze cautionary situations of man attempting to play God and in Morgan we find another group of scientists hoping to craft a certain genetic code in order to build a specific type of life form that will fit their specific needs. There are numerous amounts of ideological and ethical questions that can spring from such situations and thus what made the aforementioned Ex Machina so engaging last year, but while Morgan seems intent on following a similar pattern if not setting its titular experiment in a different set of circumstances it quickly dissolves into little more than a ridiculous action romp that would rather spill blood than explore ideas. It is always easier to revert to a formula rather than continue on a prompt into territory where ideas might become revealing or genuinely insightful. Naturally, this requires more thought and investment on the part of the writer and though Morgan is the product of a singular screenwriter in Seth W. Owen it feels, especially in the hurried second half, as if the film was put together by a committee who found the first half to be too boring and trying for modern audiences and thus forced Owen and Scott to infuse their contemplations on artificial intelligence and the difference in demonstrating and actually feeling real emotions with a high body count. This isn't even necessarily an issue were the film to still give due diligence to the larger ideas it clearly has on its mind, but at a slight ninety minutes it feels as if Morgan is forced to choose between being a thinking person's film and a strict action movie and by splitting those categorizations right down the middle it isn't enough of either to excel as one or the other.

Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie) takes Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) outside with promises of a peaceful life by the lake.
A very sleek and polished film, Scott directs with much the same aesthetic as his father. Morgan takes place largely in the wilderness, in an old house, in the middle of a forest that could seemingly be located anywhere in North America. The old house is home to a group of scientists employed by the company synSECT who has put them there for reasons of creating a synthetic, but generally peaceful life form that has the ability to execute whatever the company may require. In short, they want a weaponized being with a manageable temperament. Seen solely through surveillance cameras the opening scene of the film documents Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) meeting with Morgan (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy) inside her secured sanctuary delivering news that clearly upsets Morgan to the point she attacks Dr. Grieff without a second thought. This "error" as it is referred prompts synSECT to send risk analyst Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to assess and report on the situation with her verdict heavily influencing whether or not corporate will shut down the Morgan experiment or not. Upon her arrival, Lee is met with a guarded amount of animosity as Ted Brenner (Michael Yare) is her closest contact to corporate, but he too has become part of the tight-knit group at the farm that consists of head doctor, Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), her second in command Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), behavior analyst Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), Dr. Darren Finch (Chris Sullivan) and his wife Dr. Brenda Finch (Vinette Robinson), as well as site chef, Skip (Boyd Holbrook), who is immediately taken with Ms. Weathers. Weathers doesn't mean to get to know these people as much as she is simply intent on getting to the bottom of what they've actually been cooking up in the woods for seven years as well as if their labor has yielded successful results. As part of her evaluation synSECT has scheduled a psych evaluation for Morgan with company psychiatrist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti). It is the forty or so minutes leading up to the confrontation between Morgan and Shapiro that feel measured and truly effective only making the show-stopping scene featuring Giamatti that much more climactic thus giving the remainder of the film a bar in which it is unable to reach again.

That is all to say that Morgan does a number of things right or more objectively that it does a number of things interestingly. What stands out first and foremost is the amount of credibility this well-worn premise is able to elicit from the caliber of talent it has on board. In some ways it is kind of astonishing how much talent this otherwise straightforward genre thriller was able to attract, but given the connections of the director's father it isn't too surprising. While Taylor-Joy and Mara get the meat of the material here it is something of a shame there is little left for the strong supporting cast to work with. Jones, who ultimately gets more screen time that Yeoh despite the clear outranking in their character statuses, becomes something of the surrogate in which the remainder of the team channels their anger and anxiety towards the clear disrespect and distrust corporate is exhibiting through the presence of Weathers. The script could have cut both Sullivan and Robinson's characters completely were it not trying to reinforce just how tight knit of a group they had all become. Other than her opening scene in which we don't see her face and a short conversation with Mara's Weathers the presence of someone as charismatic as Leigh is completely wasted while Holbrook may have one of the more difficult tasks in the film as he is required to develop and establish a connection with Mara's icy cold Weathers through a single scene and then allow that to resonate through only one other encounter in order to justify the complete arc of Sid and his motivations by the time the third act arrives. It's a nice piece of subtle acting with Leslie doing something of the same in what is played as a different kind of emotional connection with Morgan than the rest of the group displays. Leslie (The Last Witch Hunter) exhibits interesting caveats within the character of Amy that only ever hint at what may or may not be happening between herself and the science experiment, but Scott is smart enough to not let this plot strand take over, but rather use it as a way to eventually show exactly why Morgan could never exist as both her creators and the audience (for much of the running time) hope she might.

Morgan encounters synSECT's risk assessor Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) for the first time in Morgan.
This is really Taylor-Joy and Mara's show though with just enough Giamatti thrown in to be effective and foreboding. Fresh off her name-making turn in The Witch Taylor-Joy proves she has actual chops in that the character of Morgan is hardly human, but more a deceiver that uses her appearance and inherent intelligence to lean her opponent in whatever direction she needs them to go. Taylor-Joy maintains a glassy-eyed presence through much of her interactions that conveys an innocence in which we truly believe. As the film is sure to state repeatedly, Morgan is actually only five years-old, but given she advances at such an accelerated rate (walking and talking within a month of her birth) she looks more like that of a girl in her early twenties. How there is a balance found in the intelligence and the exterior physicality is what Scott and Owen seem most interested in exploring-how the surrogate body is used to manipulate through the organism these scientists have created. While Taylor-Joy is able to play upon these uncertain aspects of Morgan's behavior nicely it is as if Mara takes them one step further with her performance giving very little away about her true intentions, but rather whatever we pick up from Mara's Weathers comes largely from her actions. That may sound like the easier task-and probably is to a degree-but to be able to consistently keep this facade of mystery and precise ambiguity is a skill not be taken for granted and Mara demonstrates it throughout providing if not an emotional anchor for the audience to attach themselves to, at least a point of reason and general perspective through which we can take in the events of the film. Though the performances shine through it all and Scott demonstrates a certain amount of restraint that gives the film a vagueness allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions (Helsinki, for example), but it is once again in that final act that even Scott can't stand to keep the restraints on any longer-giving in to his seeming need for blunt force trauma rather than that of the psychological kind Morgan seemed headed towards for the first half of its running time. Still, while Morgan ends up being rather average it might be worth a second viewing just to see if there are more subtle nods to what is actually going on that one might not pick up on in an initial viewing. Even so, it's highly doubtful such nuances would change the overall verdict of this promising, but rather rote piece of entertainment.