When you assemble the likes of Kate Mara (House of Cards), Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) you’d expect all the girl power onboard to make for some exceptionally high voltage x-chromosome electricity. I mean we’re talking Ygritte, Sue Storm, Thomasin, Daisy Domergue and Wai Lin all huddled under one hot tin roof, sermonizing, philosophizing and fisticuffing under the purview of a Ridley Scott protege. But all the estrogen in the world can’t overpower Morgan’s tepid and over-familiar “lab monster” plot nor fuel its running-on-fumes third act.
Before Morgan double-taps the narrative breaker and short circuits everything it has going, it’s a rather restrained little sci-fi thriller for a good 45 minutes or so. More focused on character design and ethical quandaries than special effects or high blood pressure slap-attacks, the first act presupposes that somewhere in the wooded, upstate area of the US hides one of those fated cabin in the woods, ripe for a reckoning. In this case, said cabin is more a half-dilapidated colonial complete with a secret underground bunker that houses an experimental bio-genetic project, codename Morgan (Taylor-Joy).
Grown in a lab, Morgan is as genderless as the keyboard I’m typing upon but those who’ve spent their formative years with it – including Rose Leslie’s overly-empathetic behaviorist Amy Menser, Toby Jones’ paternal mad scientist Dr. Simon Ziegler and Chris Sullivan’s naively gentle technician – recognize her gender, identity and emotions as genuine. Non-organic though they may be, they exist nonetheless. Unpredictable and unscripted, that which makes her her cannot be stripped away nor programed. She is a unique kind of ouroboros, a self-perpetuating entity creating itself through observation and reflection of her surroundings.
Seth W. Owen’s script never dives to deep into the whys or hows of Morgan’s creation – and the less technical malarkey the better – nor how her emotional capacity plays into her “malfunction” – Morgan stabs a scientist (Leigh) repeatedly in the eye when she’s told that she can’t visit a lake. It’s this latter bit which proves so ultimately disappointing purely because of the magnitude of wasted potential. It’s a fascinating germ of a notion, that emotion is a virus; a corrupting file. But, like a picnic rotisserie chicken left in the hot sun, it’s left to spoil from diligence.
Luke Scott’s Morgan is the latest in a string of biogenetic femme-fatale flicks, including Spike Jonzes’ near-perfect Her and Alex Garland’s equally astounding Ex Machina. What makes Ex Machina such a well oiled machine is its playfulness in terms of its character’s emotionality complexity. We never quite know who to trust and Garland wields this unease like a guiding light.
Eva feigns emotional depth and empathy – or at least reflects it back to Caleb in such a way to manipulate him to her ends – but ultimately reveals herself to be little more than a callous machine. Morgan, in contrast, is set up to have genuine emotions but not the intellectual capacity to keep them harnessed. Paul Giamatti as a pushy therapist finds this out the hard way. In many ways, she’s the antithesis of Eva; she is not cunning nor is she in control.
Her outbursts are those of a child but with the muscular tone of a stallion. When Kate Mara’s matter-of-fact risk corporate management specialist comes to weigh in on the economic feasibility of the “product”, she’s witness to a messianic meltdown. This non-human is treated with all the adoration of a fallen star. Even the scientist who found her eye turned into a carving station defends Morgan. “She didn’t mean to,” they plead, grasping at straws to keep her from being terminated. The science-minded find themselves reduced to optimism and hopeful outlooks. Only the in-suite chef (Boyd Holbrook) seems immune to Morgan’s artificial intelligence. But again, none of these threads actually go anywhere save for the butcher station to be hacked into narrative ribbons.
In truth, there are a number of compelling elements that populate Morgan‘s moral conundrum – is Morgan a person or a product or both?; Where do we cap the collateral damage suffered from her “childish fits”?; Why are those working with her so exceedingly dedicated to her well-being at the expense of their own? – but as it moves into the later stages, everything left hanging falls to the floor with a painful wallop. Questions are chucked out for martial arts, leaving the cranial aspects of Morgan unexplored as it all warps into a humdrum shoot-em-up resembling the hundred other lab creature movies we’ve already seen before. Which is all the more disappointing considering that the first 45 minutes essentially establish the opposite.
Scott experiments with visual symmetry – layering little framing eggs meant to clue careful watchers into later reveals – and champions nimble combat over the brute force trauma that’s so often a staple of the genre but more often than not, his visual style feels flat and derivative. The product of someone who cannot break out; someone trapped within a codified normative how-to manual. Everything ends on a fairly predictable – but not altogether unimaginative – twist that adds some much needed meaning to the affair but it can’t help feeling like too little too late from Scott. Anyone who felt burned by Tarsem Singh’s Self/less will feel a familiar sting as Morgan similarly takes an appealing sci-fi proposition, builds it into something of interest and squanders that potential, smushing it into shapeless action movie goo that’s sure to be forgotten by dawn.
CONCLUSION: ‘Morgan’ carefully sets up a tricksy female-forward A.I. endeavor but abandons its intriguing cerebral exploration for humdrum action beats and a lame-brained, strung out third act. The impressive cast makes it watchable though expect to be let down when all is said and done.