There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling a story that’s been told before. Every fictional story is a “What if?” and some of those what-ifs naturally play off earlier what-ifs, and take them in different directions or to different conclusions. It’s only a problem when the latest iteration of the story doesn’t bring anything new to the table. With Luke Scott’s debut film, Morgan, the lack of a fresh angle is a problem on two levels: first, the film doesn’t have any particularly intelligent or clever answers to its own what-if premise. Second, it’s operating in the shadow of other science-fiction films that do engage with the same questions.
On paper, Morgan comes across as a cheaper version of 2009’s Splice. Both films are about groups of isolated scientists, working out of dilapidated, creepy old houses, on experiments to create stable human hybrids. Both films focus on how the scientists try to play God, but are fatally limited by their own human weaknesses. They create dangerous, powerful female creatures, then can’t hold back from humanizing those creations, and making unsafe, unwise emotional connections with them. And both films turn on the question of what the new inhuman creature feels in return, whether it will escape, and what will happen if it does.
But in execution, Morgan has just as much in common with Alex Garland’s 2015 standout Ex Machina, another recent chilly science fiction / horror hybrid about yet another inhuman female creation trying to get out of yet another glass box. Morgan echoes plenty of other stories, from Species to the genre-launching what-if novel Frankenstein, but given how recent and similar Garland’s film is, it casts the longest shadow. Many of the films’ beats are the same, but Morgan has less interest in the heady questions that usually shape science fiction: what the future will look like, how it will change us as a species, whether the good and bad aspects of cultural evolution will balance, or one will topple the other. Morgan also isn’t as visually stylish, as ambitious, as thoughtful, or as strange as Ex Machina. Most bafflingly, Morgan’s creators (Ridley Scott’s son Luke and Peepers writer-director Seth W. Owen) don’t seem to care about the natural questions a Frankenstein story raises. At best, they’re creating a stripped-down, plain-and-simple monster-mayhem story.
Kate Mara stars as Lee Weathers, a humorless tech-conglomerate rep checking in on her corp’s latest unstable investment: a lab-created young woman named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who recently rage-mutilated one of her keepers (Jennifer Jason Leigh, confined to a few brief scenes). Morgan is a five-year-old experiment in the body of a 20-year-old woman, and while the team that designed and developed her (led by Michelle Yeoh and Toby Jones) initially treated her like a beloved daughter, they’ve locked her up after a recent security breach. In flashback footage, Morgan is an adored child, surrounded by parent-figures who praise her developing intellect and personality. In the present, she’s a sullen, slouching young woman in a depressing, sterile plexiglass-and-cement cage, dully parroting the party line about how she only exists so her corporate owners can assess her validity as a potential product stream.
Morgan‘s initial problem is that the audience has no buy-in to the story. Lee, the apparent protagonist, is an icy, unforgiving professional who repeatedly pronoun-shames anyone who calls Morgan “she” instead of “it,” and Mara’s unwavering performance wears thin early on. Taylor-Joy, who was such a compelling stand-out as the lead in The Witch, similarly grinds through a character who spends so much time hidden in the depths of her hoodie that she barely seems like a presence until the film’s third act. There are some bright spots: Rose Leslie does terrific work as the pushy, boundary-ignoring behaviorist who openly sees Morgan as a person, and Yeoh gives her remote wire-mommy chief scientist character enough dignity to spackle over her unclear, inconsistent motivations. But the rest of the secondary cast are both too distinctive to fade into the background, and not well-realized enough to take definitive or meaningful places in the story.
And some of the script’s flaws are just standard-issue stupid storytelling. When a corp psychologist (Paul Giamatti) shows up to psychoanalyze Morgan in the clumsiest, most crisis-provoking way he can, it’s particularly hard not to dwell on the similar but much more elliptical, cautious sequences in Ex Machina, where caged robot Ava and interlocutor Caleb gently fenced against each other for advantage. Caleb at least tried to use a scalpel to dissect his charge; Giamatti’s character uses a mallet, with predictable results. When the monster-mayhem starts, it’s directed without much sense of momentum or escalation, as a series of repetitive and not particularly engaging fights.
This is largely due to fuzzy internal logic: the story sets Morgan up as half-human, half-nanotech, but never explores what that means, except that she’s strong and fast. Some late-film revelations suggest major political or technological shifts in the world outside Morgan’s compound, but the film doesn’t address them or make them meaningful. A briefing (delivered in voiceover by Brian Cox) tells Lee that Morgan’s creators have been isolated together for seven years, and may have drifted from their original mission parameters — an intriguing idea later covered in a single throwaway line. Everything about this story — the setup, the protocols and technology and motivations that created Morgan, the high-concept conflict only revealed in the film’s final scene — is more interesting than Morgan’s actual rote horror storyline. This is a familiar tale: man creates monster, monster runs amuck, man regrets playing God. It’s just never remotely clear what Scott and Owen found so compelling about this story that they wanted to tell it again, without meaningful variations, and in the immediate wake of better, smarter, more thrilling versions.
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