Director: Luke Scott
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox
MPAA Rating: (for brutal violence, and some language)
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 9/2/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 1, 2016
At this point, it's pretty much a given that, if a movie features a scientific experiment that is meant to look like a human being even though it isn't, the experiment will turn violent. At least Morgan is upfront with that predictable turn of events. The movie's first scene features the experiment, a being created using synthetic human DNA, attacking one of its handlers. The synthetic human was expecting a trip out to the woods, and the handler has some bad news: The hike has been postponed. That's when the synthetic leaps across the table and stabs its handler in the eye.
Let us refer to Morgan (an eerie performance by Anya Taylor-Joy), the synthetic, as an "it," because that's what the company that is funding this experiment would prefer. The actual human beings surrounding Morgan have a difficult time with that identification. They naturally refer to Morgan as "she" and "her," because they have seen its life from its conception. Morgan is technically a 5-year-old, because it has been five years since its "birth." It looks like a teenager, though, because one of the quirks of the lab-created DNA is that it accelerates physical growth. It also means that Morgan possesses physical strength beyond her years and stature. This makes for either a dangerously moody teenager or a very terrifying kindergartener, depending on the circumstances and one's point of view.
What's intriguing about Seth W. Owen's screenplay is the way that it focuses on the strange bonds between the synthetic and its human creators/handlers. After that opening scene, one could be forgiven for having certain expectations about the plot that is to follow. We know that Morgan is capable of violence and that, under the proper circumstances, it is willing to act out on those violent tendencies. The only questions, it seems, are how long it will take for such an outburst to happen again and what will be the impetus that sets Morgan off to turn violent.
Then we meet the staff of the research facility in the middle of nowhere, and those expectations dwindle to a certain extent. Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, these people do not see Morgan as a threat. In fact, they rationalize what "she" did, and that includes the person who is attacked in the opening scene.
Because of the assault, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk management consultant for the company overseeing the project, comes to investigate the incident, the people involved in the experiment, and Morgan itself. The project team is mostly in agreement about Morgan. The various scientists—played by actors such as Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Michelle Yeoh, and Jennifer Jason Leigh—who oversee Morgan's development are certain the incident is just the result of normal growing pains.
They can prevent such a thing from happening again, and moreover, they appear to have come to feel toward Morgan in the way of a family member. Leslie's Amy Menser, for example, is akin to the cool aunt, who takes Morgan on those walks in the woods, and Morgan calls Yeoh's Lui Cheng "mother." As they show Lee videos of Morgan's development, the scientists watch with faces that look like parents browsing a photo album and wondering where the time went.
The only two who are skeptical of Morgan are Skip (Boyd Holbrook), the facility's cook (who has a drunken encounter with Lee that forces an unnecessary question of romance into the mix), and Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), a psychiatrist who's called in to evaluate Morgan's state of mind. The scene between Shapiro and Morgan is the highlight of the movie, filled with probing questions about Morgan's nature but concentrated on the shifting dynamic between two characters who might be underestimating each other. Shapiro intentionally attempts to push Morgan to react, and beyond the inherent tension in such a proposition (since we know what happened to the last person who challenged Morgan), there's a moment in which Morgan turns the tables on the psychiatrist that simultaneously reduces Morgan as a physical threat and transforms the character into a craftier one—a being that is just aware enough to know it is being wronged.
Just after Owen grabs our attention with this scene, though, the movie does fall into the predictable routine of this kind of tale. The body count quickly increases, although the established thread of the facility employees' attachment to Morgan means that first-time feature director Luke Scott approaches the ensuing violence with a surprisingly regretful tone.
The result is not a series of bloody, gruesome killings for their own sake. For Morgan, it's a matter of survival. For the personnel, this is a betrayal, and each one isn't immediately willing to act in their interest of their own survival. There's a momentary pause—a look of concern for Morgan or an attempt to reach out to it on a personal level—that leaves them defenseless—just enough time for Morgan to act.
Unfortunately, formula overcomes the movie's less expected elements and approach, and the climax resorts to a car chase, a foot chase, some gunplay, and an over-the-top fistfight (not to mention a last-minute revelation that a certain performance telegraphs within the first 10 minutes). Whatever thoughtfulness Morgan approaches over the course of its setup is dismissed outright in the final 20 minutes.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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