In a remote lab set in a concrete bunker deep in the woods, scientists have bio-engineered a synthetic human. To the shadowy company funding the super-secret project, the creation is an “it,” a product meant to be tested for viability and then patented. To the scientists that raise and care for her, she’s Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). And to Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), the risk management agent sent to investigate Morgan’s violent “setback” at the lab, Morgan is an assignment whose fate is in her hands.
Luke Scott’s Morgan is the first feature directed by Scott, son of Ridley, whose credits are few, with the most high-profile being second unit work on his father’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Here, he’s operating on a small scale, and the moody, taut thriller that this debut aspires to be is certainly in keeping with entries from the Scott family. A number of scenes in Morgan recall moments from Ridley’s work (Alien and Hannibal, especially), but at its core this is a high-concept retelling of the Frankenstein story. Which is why the far superior Blade Runner, with its depiction of creations simultaneously falling away from and needing their creators, is the Ridley Scott film to which Morgan can best draw thematic comparisons.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Luke also has his father’s penchant for applying his skill more to style than substance. Along with the prevalence of shadows, the film prioritizes mood and atmospherethough it does feature a washed-out color palette, emphasizing, as most modern films do, cold blues and pale yellows. But still, the result is a look that seems to have been given greater consideration than advancing the film’s plot in a way that doesn’t come off so desperately contrived.
Regardless, the promise is there. Morgan provides an avenue for entertaining complex ethical ideas regarding scientists and their creations. Some of the best scenes consider what it means to be human, to be mortal, to not know what one is while seeking out a measure of comfort and security in what others perceive you to be. It teases the possibility of becoming a thought-provoking psychological thriller, indulges in some tired horror tropes, and reveals its aspirations to do little more than resolve its dramatic tension in a flurry of fisticuffs and a surprise ending that isn’t.
Morgan looks like a girl in her early teens, but is just five years old. Her sense of self is still developing, and though she’s a synthetic creation, she’s formed strong psychological bonds with a few of the scientists that nurture her, going so far as to call one of them “Mother.” They provide the emotional security and physical freedom she has to have in her otherwise regimented and confined existence.
It turns out, as shown in an establishing scene, that Morgan is a formidable opponent because of her advanced intellect and super-human physical strength, with a little precognition thrown in to elicit gasps. (How this particular power could even exist based on her genetic makeup is left to our imaginations.) Morgan can be deadly if she doesn’t get her way or is pushed into uncomfortable emotions or situations. She tries sincerely to be acquiescent, but her intellect sometimes runs up against a fierce id that drives the film’s action. Because Morgan is a complex character, more than just a monstrous, one-dimensional creation as she might be in a lesser film, Scott adds texture to his thriller. His framing of scenes when Morgan speaks to visitors from her cell captures carefully placed reflections in the reinforced glass barrier. The images are visually mesmerizing, suggesting common identities between Morgan and her visitors, and a yearning for connection and recognition.
The two leads who gaze upon one another through the glass barrier of her prison are exceptionally well cast. As Lee, Mara (Fantastic Four, House of Cards) assumes an ice-cold demeanor and pitiless dedication to her job—one that may involve Morgan’s termination. Her counterpart is played by Taylor-Joy (The Witch), who applies a mostly uninflected pattern of speech to convey Morgan’s extra-human origins, making her sudden emotional outbursts that much more startling. She expresses confusion from behind her large, wide-set eyes, eyes that give her an alien-like appearance well suited to her character’s origin. Taylor-Joy’s ability to convey her character’s human traits—need for acceptance, pity for others—makes us empathize with Morgan even as we fear for those whom she might harm because of her inability to deal with her own emotions.
Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti’s smug psychologist is among those characters acting needlessly irrationally in order to give Morgan a reason to go on a rampage, turning Morgan’s psych evaluations into occasions for tormenting her. Likewise, the lab’s scientists betray a degree of comfort in Morgan’s presence that is too much at odds with what we’d expect of someone who’s seen what she’s capable of. Actors like Michelle Yeoh and Jennifer Jason Leigh are on board in support, but nothing they do or are given to say increases our understanding of this lazily incomplete world. We don’t know where they came from or the nature of the corporation for which they work. Nor do we get a sense that they know their ultimate purpose in creating Morgan. When Toby Jones’ Dr. Ziegler declares that Morgan has surpassed the team’s wildest expectations, we have no idea what that means to him or for what purpose the scientists think their creation is intended.
When that purpose is revealed by the film’s end, it isn’t much of a surprise. If Scott and screenwriter Seth W. Owen gave more attention to ideas than shocks and genre action, they might have come up with a fascinating picture. As it is, they’ve made their own Frankenstein’s monster.
Director: Luke Scott
Writer: Seth W. Owen
Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox
Release date: September 2, 2016