Morgan is a sci-fi thriller and feature film debut for Luke Scott, son of famed movie director Ridley Scott. Does this new film show the potential of the younger Scott to follow in his father's sci-fi genre-defining footsteps? Check out our review to find out.
The next step in human evolution is a common topic in science fiction. As human beings ourselves, we are fascinated by our potential, even more so with our capabilities when utilizing our rapidly-advancing technology to achieve it. At the same time, it can be a frightening discussion topic because the implications are unknown. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that films have often touched on the subject. From X-Men to Ex-Machina, the potential future of humanity in the wake of biological and technological change makes for an interesting and thought-provoking experience. Morgan is the latest film following this trend, exploring the “what-ifs” of utilizing bio-engineering to push humanity towards the next step in our development as a species.
In this regard, Morgan shows us a potential corporate-sponsored avenue through which this can be achieved. Rather than focusing on the more wide-spread implications of such a development, this film chooses to tell its story revolving around the people that made the breakthrough, less so the breakthrough itself. That “breakthrough” is Morgan, a bioengineered child who matures in only 5 years and possesses indeterminate cognitive powers. It is a bit of a surprise then, that the film’s focus is not completely on the entity with which it shares its name, but rather the people who helped to make it/her. But as I watch the film, the not-quite-honest title is only the beginning of a series of decisions by the filmmakers to play off of expectations. As the plot progresses, it becomes apparent that the film is not so much interested in exploring its creation, but using that mysteriousness as an excuse to keep throwing twists at the audience.
When all's said and done, Morgan has many of the same problems that other films with the misfortune of releasing this year have also perpetrated. The trend is for modern writers to be overly confident that their twists will be enough for audiences to be hooked on their film, to the point of not emphasizing much of anything else along the way. When the twists fall flat, audiences have nothing else to grab onto. Instead of developing its characters to the point that we care about them, Morgan only brings them in when they are needed to advance the story. And for a film that relies so heavily on its twists to keep us on the edge of our seats, you would expect those twists to be downright shocking. They aren't. We've all seen movies before, we know how the tropes play out. Morgan takes an interesting premise and flips it back around towards seen-it-before territory. Basing a film on the shock of its twists, rather than exploring the thought-provoking ideas it brings up in the process, is simply a big risk that does not pay off.
But does this make it a bad film? Not entirely.
Morgan mostly keeps your attention. I say mostly because the pacing is slow and it feels like there are a lot of filler shots that don't really add anything to the experience. I get that the filmmakers are trying to create a creepy tone, and having filler material full of mysterious forests and characters staring into space silently helps, but these things aren't interesting to watch. Morgan's premise promises something interesting, yet it always seems like the film is focused on something trivial. This is in addition to the fact that when events do occur, they are borderline predictable. There's simply not enough to keep you from either being bored, or noticing the things you’ve seen before somewhere else.
The film starts off in a deliberate, and structured way that may seem too restricting at first. A phone call overdubbed over a montage shot provides the first taste of exposition, which is followed up with gradual flashbacks and recorded videos as the film progresses. The filmmaker’s attempts to fill you in are not well camouflaged, but they get the job done. It’s that initial jolt of a new character stepping into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation which helps to overcome the deficiencies in narrative. Exploring a new setting along with a character is as good of a hook as you’re going to get. The film starts off well enough.
The presentation is clean and crisp. The simplicity helps to channel the film’s emotions unencumbered to the audience. There’s also something strangely calming and monotonous about the way the film is constructed. Luke Scott is clearly influenced by his father’s use of light, and indeed it helps that Ridley is onboard here as producer. We see the sun perfectly filtered through a thick, ominous forest. We’re supposed to be captivated by the beauty and danger of nature, a theme that is reoccuring throughout. Later there’s a luminous wall in an underground bunker that serves as a source of light amongst dark scientific intentions.
This interesting lighting, combined with high contrast and sharp colors makes Morgan as easy on the eyes as any modern film. But here, beauty has a purpose. The filmmakers use the film’s visuals and slower pacing to lull you into a sense of false security. If you are a more seasoned viewer, familiar with the technique as seen in films like Ex Machina and Soderbergh's Solaris, you’ll pick up on the unnerving textures. In turn, the easiness through with danger can be sensed does compromise some of the film’s twists.
Morgan has a couple good shocking moments, dispersed between scenes of tense dialogue and characters shooting daggers out of their eyes. Seriously, this could be a silent film with quick cuts of characters giving each other looks and it would be easy to follow. Kate Mara (The Martian) is strangely mesmerizing in the lead role. She plays her character's’ overconfidence on her sleeve, which is both a good and bad trait. Good because it makes the character’s job believable. She’s the one responsible for reviewing the genetic engineered specimen’s progress and making a decision about its future. Bad, because her character’s demeanor actually spoils the films’ big twists. I feel like the filmmakers are too deliberate in their efforts to pepper the production with easter eggs that they misjudged their audience's attentiveness. It also hurts that the film's’ slow pacing and simple storyline makes it easier to pick up on little things because there isn’t much else to provide a distraction.
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) plays the titular character as equal parts child and robot. The audience is introduced to her/it along with Kate Mara’s character, so we don’t get any extra insight which helps keep the entity’s intentions a mystery worth exploring. Taylor-Joy’s performance is simply unnerving (in a good way). We see Morgan behave like an innocent, but the audience is not convinced and we are at odds with the other characters who appear to care for her/it deeply. They are the ones that have dedicated many years to make this project a reality. To them, they feel like parents, and Morgan is their child. Toby Jones’ (Captain America: The WInter Soldier) does a great job expressing his character’s commitment to the project. This is his life’s work finally come to fruition, so he has a certain devotion that the audience can at least relate to.
At the heart of the film is a riveting scene with Paul Giamatti where his character administers a psyche evaluation on Morgan. It’s in this moment where the film really hits its stride and moves towards something unique and exciting, but that progress is short lived. Giamatti makes for one of the best characters in the entire film, showing a charisma the others lack. But he simply doesn’t stick around enough for the story to really do something interesting. Instead, the film heads in the exact direction you think it would, playing for shock rather than further exploration of thought-provoking elements.
This type of behavior towards “watch this” rather than “what if” is what causes Morgan to not be the breakthrough film accomplishment we might have hoped for. For a plot that hints towards infinite human potential, it feels relatively restrained and short-sighted. But categorize this effort more as missed opportunity with good intention, rather than the alternate.
What's Bad: Lackluster script skips over all the interesting bits, some wooden acting, relies too heavily on shock as a form of entertainment (and then isn't that shocking), doesn't bring anything new to the table, best characters/moments are wasted.