Ridley Scott has long been regarded as one of the pioneering voices of sci-fi filmmaking, with two of his contributions (Alien and Blade Runner) being widely regarded as among the most significant genre offerings of all time. This week, audiences will find out just how far the apple falls from the tree as his son Luke – who shot second-unit material for his father on Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Martian – makes his feature-length length debut with Morgan.
Deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a group of scientists living in isolation have done the incredible, manufacturing a new life form using synthetic DNA. Affectionately referred to as Morgan by her caretakers, the L-9 prototype (Anya Taylor-Joy) has astonishingly advanced cognitive abilities, enhanced speed and strength, and a fondness for opera music. Clad in a threadbare grey sweatshirt, Morgan’s appearance resembles that of a sulky teenager – but at only five years old, she’s still learning to control her emotions. When most five-year-olds throw a tantrum, it generally amounts to a lot of kicking and screaming – when Morgan does it, she vaults over a table and stabs a lab technician in the eye.
This unfortunate turn of events leads to the arrival of Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk management consultant from the unnamed corporation funding the L-9 project. With her impeccably pressed business suits and icy demeanor, Lee obviously comes from a different world than the facility’s other inhabitants – while the prototype’s creators might view her as a child in need of guidance, Lee regards Morgan as nothing more than an investment. “It’s a goddamn microwave as far as I’m concerned,” she snaps during one exchange, which does little to endear her to the staff, or to Morgan herself.
What begins as a slow-burn thriller about the nature of humanity and the consequences of playing God regrettably takes a detour around the halfway point, trading in its philosophical undertones for slasher-movie schlock and action-movie clichés, including a lengthy car chase and several hand-to-hand combat sequences – apparently Morgan is a fan of the Bourne films. And she may not be the only one, as Scott abandons the competent shot compositions used in the film’s early scenes in favor of the extreme close-ups, rapid cuts and over-reliance on “shaky cam” that so many directors seem to mistake for style. It feels like I just complained about this last week… oh, right. I did.
Morgan survives thanks to the strength of its cast, with rising stars like Rose Leslie and Boyd Holbrook balanced out by screen veterans like Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Giamatti (all of whom are slumming it here). Taylor-Joy, with her pale skin and wide, expressive eyes, is every bit as captivating as she was in February’s The Witch, but it’s Mara who turns in the most compelling performance as the inhospitable authority figure who’s not in the mood for anyone’s bullshit. Not only is she the film’s only character that feels like it could exist outside the theater – let’s face it, we’ve all known someone as terrifyingly professional as Lee – she’s also the only one who seems capable of making decisions that are even remotely tethered to a sense of logic.
It’s a shame those same qualities didn’t rub off on the filmmakers – if they had, Morgan would be a much better film.
The feature-length debut of director from Ridley Scott's son opens strong, but fizzles out when it eschews its psychological thriller foundation in favor of car chases, hand-to-hand combat and slasher-movie violence.