It feels reductive to call Morgan a poor man’s version of last year’s Ex Machina, but it’s impossible to watch this movie and not be distracted by the ever-present shadow of Alex Garland’s vastly more cerebral film. The set-design, the investigative structure of the story, and even the quizzical, female science experiment at the center are all so eerily similar, that were it to have any sense of humour I’d probably mistake it for a straight up parody, which might end up being a missed opportunity as ‘Not Another Existential Sci-Fi Movie’ might have been just terrible enough to work. The sterile and po-faced Morgan is a mercilessly forgettable affair that does little more than the bare minimum as both a piece of science fiction and horror.
Following a healthy serving of exposition, Morgan sees us join Kate Mara’s Lee Weathers, a risk-management consultant sent to assess an incident with the company’s new prototype and determine whether it’s still viable, or whether it should be terminated. The wrinkle, of course, is that the prototype is an artificially created teenage girl named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the incident was her flipping out and violently attacking one of the scientists.
Much like Ex Machina, we spend a large part of the film either watching the subject being interviewed, or watching characters talk about her, which inevitably does touch on some interesting questions about what it means to be alive and whether something created has the same rights as those that created it, etcetera, etcetera. Unlike Ex Machina, however, the questions Morgan has to ask seem much more specific to the characters in this story and end up having very little to say about the world, lacking that nihilistic chill that made that other movie so captivating (I swear that’s the last time I’ll bring it up). The groundwork is all there for some interesting theoretical discussion, but ultimately writer Seth W. Owen passes on the opportunity to say anything worthwhile, leaning more and more heavily on the “horror” side of his genre mash up as the movie ticks on.
To Owen’s credit, the film is marginally more successful at being unsettling than it is at being intriguing. The clinical tone of the film can be a little alienating, but it actually does quite a good job of keeping you on edge, especially during the first half of the film. Meeting the various scientists and other specialists living together and working on the project does a wonderful job of building anticipation. It’s also reasonably interesting discovering which of them are trying to remind themselves that she’s a thing and not a person, and who has it the other way around. There is a sense of denial about Morgan’s handlers that you want to believe in, especially as they glow with pride when they talk about her or show photos of her enjoying a birthday. But these bright moments cast the deepest shadows, giving you a subtle dread in anticipation of another violent outburst that could break these people’s hearts (or, more likely, necks).
Some of debut director Luke Scott’s compositions are also quite haunting, even if they are a little on the nose at times. Yes, he takes inspiration from –another film– but the creepily serene tone he builds helps paint a world that is at once volatile and tranquil, in turn helping Morgan combat its schlocky nature. Unfortunately the film doesn’t play in that space for long, and after a welcome (but totally unnecessary) cameo from Paul Giamatti, it quickly abandons the investigation the plot built itself on and dives headfirst into B-grade thriller.
It’s here that things really start to fall apart for Morgan. The third act is riddled with plot holes, motivations all start to blur, and what action you do get feels cheap and uninspired. The biggest problem though is that you really don’t care what happens or to who it happens to. Mara’s Lee Weathers is amongst the blandest protagonists I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t possess an ounce of personality or humour, or anything in the way of backstory to get you invested (at least until it’s too late to make a difference). Morgan is at the very least intriguing in conception (even if she is something you’ve seen before), but after a handful of very poor script choices any empathy you felt for her is thrown dramatically out the window. And once you take them away, all that’s left is a bunch of red-shirt scientists who range from forgettable archetypes, to just plain forgettable.
Morgan should be a suspenseful ride filled with existential questions and conflict over who you’re supposed to root for. Instead, it winds up being a series of events happening to people you never really liked in the first place. Ignoring for a moment the inherent laziness of a movie drawing so heavily from its inspiration, there is potential here for an interesting sci-fi/horror hybrid. If you squint hard enough you can start to see some of that promise realised in a handful of moments scattered across the run time, but aside from the odd successes it stumbles across (or lifted from other movies), Morgan is undeniably a half-baked effort.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10