Morgan (2016)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-09-03 05:39

Written by: Seth W. Owen
Directed by: Luke Scott
Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Rose Leslie

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

Don't let it out.

It seems appropriate that Morgan arrives a few days after Mary Shelleyís birthday, as it's not only yet another Frankenstein riff but also one that lends itself to an obvious metaphor. Cobbled and stitched together from the disparate parts of better movies, it lumbers along in search of some kind of identity, lulling the audience into a bit of a snooze before it finally comes to life. In doing so, however, it only steps out of Shelleyís shadow long enough for director Luke Scott to step into his fatherís, as Morgan eventually echoes one of Ridley Scottís more formative efforts. The end result is a mish-mash of a film that holds just enough cult intrigue, particularly in a performance that I believe will become a favorite in the coming years.

That performance belongs to Kate Mara, though youíd never expect it at first. In the role of corporate troubleshooter Lee Weathers, she arrives at a remote compound to assess Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), a synthetic being who has recently gone haywire. Specifically, a blind fit of rage drove her to stab a doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the eye, prompting questions about her viability as a product. Weathers unassumingly intrudes onto a tightly-knit group wary of any outsiders: to them, Morgan is their communal child, albeit one thatís grown into a teenager in the span of just five years. On the other hand, Morganís loyalty proves to be far more fickle once she learns that Weathersís evaluation may result in her own termination: now (potentially) scorned by her creators, she lashes out in violent fashion.

You can almost feel the mandate for Morgan, a film that seems to be guided by one overarching studio note: ďletís do Ex Machina but make it dumber by stripping all pretense of intrigue and thematic subtext. And, most importantly, the part where the artificial lifeform goes on a rampage? Letís make sure we do a lot more than that.Ē I am perhaps overstating (and certainly assuming) a bit, but the film almost feels positively antsy to get to ďthe good stuff.Ē Hell, the cold open features Morgan shoving a sharp object into the doctorís eye, effectively acting as a prelude for the inevitable violence to come.

In the meantime, however, audiences are saddled with the usual platitudes about whether or not Morgan can actually be considered a lifeform instead of a science experiment. To its credit, these tired, uninspired musings are delivered by a weirdly star-studded cast boasting the likes of Toby Jones (as a scientist), Michelle Yeoh (ditto), Rose Leslie (a behaviorist to which Morgan is especially attached), and Brian Cox (redacted spoiler). At one point, even Paul Giamatti wanders in as a psychologist looking to assess Morgan, though heís only around long enough to chew a mere corner of the scenery. When his character insists that he needs to get out of here as soon as possible, it might as well be Giamatti talking about bailing the movie set.

Which is to say Morgan is awfully tedious for about half the runtime, full of characters and decisions that feel forced and underdeveloped. We hear an awful lot about this small communityís unique bond, yet we see so little of it. Most of the backstory is confined to Mara watching videos of Morganís development; occasionally, flashbacks involving Morgan and her behaviorist reveal better, more peaceful days, at least until the former ruthlessly snaps the neck of a dying deer. Even this does precious little to actually explore the title character here, whom the script often treats as a faux object of fascination: itís less interested in who (or what) Morgan is and more eager to explore what she can do (namely: rip peopleís throats out).

Essentially wasting Taylor-Joy is arguably the filmís biggest disappointment. Whatever presence Morgan has must be credited to an actress given precious little to work with: for half of the film, sheís locked in a room, forced to brood beneath a hoodie. Other characters pay lip service to her but sheís treated as a plaything to be observed; for whatever reason, the film treats her as an enigma that can never be understood. Again, sheís literally introduced caving someoneís face in, so thereís no genuine attempt to treat her as a person, an approach that all but undercuts the central question here: should Morgan be put down for the sake of everyoneís safety, or should she be given the benefit of the doubt? At no point is the latter even a viable option despite a prolonged debate among characters who are just waiting to be fed to a meat-grinder.

Taylor-Joy has a weird, almost otherworldly vibe that deserves better here. Between this and The Witch, sheís run an impressive gamut from innocent Puritan to impetuous, violent synthetic organism, with both roles positioning her as a woman nobody quite knows what to do with. In The Witch, her actual family dismisses her as a pawn of Satan; in Morgan, sheís reduced to a mindless, impulsive creature, a pawn in a sinister plot involving a mysterious cabal (that it's run by men is noteworthy, I suppose). I wish the film were actually invested in exploring its themes (or, hell, considering Morgan as an actual person); instead, whatever the film might have to say is duly shushed by its violent outbursts. (Vague spoilers follow, so read on at your own peril.)

However, I am compelled to acknowledge just how enjoyable these outbursts are once they finally arrive. While they donít reach the insane, I-canít-believe-this-is-actually-happening heights of, say, Splice, they do herald quite a tangent. It turns out that the filmís caginess allows it to spring quite the tangent on the audience, one that hinges on a predictable twist with a not-so-predictable explanation. In the process, Maraís stiff, almost disinterested performance transforms into something delightful. Do you know how fucking awesome it is to see Kate Mara turn into a Terminator before your very eyes? A bone-crunching display of what Joe Bob Briggs might call ďMara-FuĒ highlights a brutal climactic showdown that absolutely justifies Morganís existence. For a film that spends a good hour spinning its wheels, seemingly going nowhere, this thing takes a hard left turn and plunges right into absurdity.

As such, itís no wonder Morgan seems so non-committal towards its characters. No matter how much Scottís film might remind you of his old manís, Blade Runner it ainít, nor is it exactly aspiring to be. I can almost forgive it for not giving much of a shit about much of anything outside of its silly climax, though I canít help but wonder just how much more effective it might have been had Scott bothered to really invest in the relationship between Morgan and her behaviorist. Because itís practically glossed over, the twist comes off as more schlocky than it is genuinely shocking or affecting: ultimately, Morgan is an unexpectedly dark movie, if only because it revels in bleakness. Its focus on synthetic life only serves to highlight the misanthropy that guides it towards a grim ending. Considering how the film otherwise feels like a bland studio product, itís surprising that Scott was allowed an uncomfortable resolution.

Outside of this burst of inspiration (which is only so inspired thanks to the inevitable Blade Runner comparisons), itís difficult to grasp just what kind of filmmaker the younger Scott is. Granted, itís just a debut, but so much of it is spent watching him retrace a bunch of steps, whether itís his fatherís or the various films that have tackled similar premises in the past. He especially seems to share his fatherís love of filtering impressive craftsmanship (read: precise compositions, striking set design, evocative, moody images) through a somewhat antiseptic lens. Morgan is a very mannered filmóuntil it isnít, at which point it finally (sort of) becomes its own thing. Itís almost a case of too little, too late, but its meanderings prove to be memorable enough to peg it as the movie that introduces the world to the Kate Mara model of the T-800. Iíll allow it.

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