Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Cox
Rated R for Brutal Violence, and Some Language
"Morgan" seeks to be this years "Ex Machina:" a low budget sci-fi thriller that explores issues of identity, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human. But while Alex Garland's debut feature made my Top 10 list last year, "Morgan" won't be anywhere near it. Don't take that to mean that this is a bad movie. It's not. It's just that it's such a letdown that even when not in comparison, it's still not worth your time.
Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is a new kind of sentient being. Born from human tissue and artificially created DNA, she's part-human and part-machine (without the abilities of Inspector Gadget, sadly). But an incident in which she attacked one of her caretakers (Leigh) has raised questions about the viability of the project. Lee Weathers (Mara), a risk-management consultant, has been sent in to determine if Morgan is stable enough to be profitable, or if she should be terminated.
The movie, which is a first-effort by Luke Scott (son of Ridley), starts out strong. Lee, a no-nonsense woman with a cold and objective personality, meets all of the people living at the facility. Scott raises an interesting question, which is whether or not personal attachment has any effect on objectivity. Some, such as Dr. Amy Menser (Leslie), have grown to love and care for Morgan. Others, such as the team leader, Dr. Lui Cheng (Yeoh), have elected to remain as impartial as possible. Skip Vronsky (Holbrook), admits to being creeped out by the whole thing. This material is interesting, if not terribly original. But once Paul Giamatti shows up, everything collapses.
Essentially, "Morgan" is a super-serious mix of "Splice" and "Hollow Man." Scott borrows elements of each, but instead of having fun with it, he plays it without any sort of a wink and a smile. That's okay with something as smart and perceptive as "Ex Machina," but that was a smart, cerebral thriller where as this is simply a sci-fi slasher movie. Scott wants it both ways, but it won't please anyone looking for either. It's too dumb for those looking for a thinking person's thriller, and too serious and sedate for those looking for a gorefest (on that not, it doesn't have much blood either).
What "Morgan" is missing, more than anything, is a middle section. Typically, stories have a three-act structure: set-up, escalating tension, and climax. Here, like the best forgotten stinker "The Lazarus Effect," it's set-up then climax. It's a weird way to tell the story that leaves the viewer feeling cheated.
At least the acting is decent. The cast, which can be essentially be divided into established stars/up and comers and no-names, can be divided in terms of quality along the same lines. Kate Mara, an underrated actress, is in top form as the humorless, tough as nails Lee. She has no time or desire for sensitivity, and when shit hits the fan, she know just what to do and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Anya Taylor-Joy, who was quite good in this year's sleeper hit "The Witch," is effective as the title character, but Alicia Vikander did it better last year (to be fair, she was working with a better script). Boyd Holbrook shows up for some sex appeal as the hunky cook Skip, although for some reason I kept thinking it was Michael Dorman (Frankie from "Daybreakers"), not Dan Stevens's junkie brother in "A Walk Among the Tombstones." And it's always nice to see Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh and Paul Giamatti. The no-names, well, let's just say none of them are going to get a call from Martin Scorcese anytime soon.
"Morgan" feels like a missed opportunity. The son of a directing legend and armed with a miniscule budget ($8 million), Scott's career is far from being on the line with this debut feature. He could have had fun with the premise. Indeed, there are at least two prime opportunities where he could have turned the genre on its ear (and looked like he was going to). But just as he approaches the precipice, he backs off and plays it safe. And he takes the material far more seriously than it deserves. I mean, if you're going to make a formula slasher movie, at least give the audience the adrenaline the genre demands. Instead, he takes the "high road" and makes an art movie, where he shakes the camera and drains any sort of manipulation from the action.
Although I may have made it sound really bad, "Morgan" is actually decent. I was never bored, and there is adrenaline to be found here. And the cinematography by Mark Patten is quite lovely (if for a different movie). If the second half falls into the trap of having supposedly smart characters suffer brain cramps and taking itself too seriously, well, at least it's R-rated and not a superhero movie. Most importantly, Seth Rogen is nowhere to be found.
For which I am eternally grateful.