SciFi Saturday: “Morgan” (2016)

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Excerpt of poster art for Morgan. Image source: denofgeek.com

An odd string of circumstances led me to the multiplex for a viewing of Luke Scott’s directorial debut, Morgan.

One: I had taken the day off for a periodontal procedure that has only increased the paranoia over my teeth and gum health;

Two: I had earned a free movie ticket by funneling enough greenbacks into Regal Cinema’s “Crown Club” (no endorsement intended).

Three: it gave me an excuse to purchase an ICEE to help numb the surgical area (I haven’t had one of those in years). (Again, no endorsement intended.)

And four: Morgan, given a wide release by 20th Century Fox, grossed a despairing half-million dollars in its opening weekend. While its estimated budget was eight million (per the IMDb) the idea is to exceed expectations when the production costs are that low.

What can I say? I have a thing for underdogs.

While I’m not suggesting anybody scissor their gums with dental floss prior to viewing Morgan, I can say that the periodontal procedure put me in an escapist mindset. It was a coin-toss between this and Sausage Party, and my concern was that the laughter spawned by the latter would agitate the dressing covering the surgical area. Therefore, bleak and humorless won out.

What can I say? I also have a thing for bleak and humorless.

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Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) in Morgan. Image source: comingsoon.net

Morgan is a film we’ve seen done often and better, from the likes of elder Scott Ridley (Blade Runner) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina). It’s a tale of scientists who create an AI; a corporate “risk assessor” commissioned to evaluate to experiment’s success; the existential questions of whether or not said AI can truly experience human emotion; and…ripping out throats, Lucio Fulci-style. Oh yeah.

Morgan leans more in the direction of Blade Runner‘s kinetic action scenes than Ex Machina‘s wandering philosophical asides. Deeper questions are raised but rarely answered (echoes of Prometheus), and the relative restraint of its first half takes a hard right turn into drive-in sci-fi mayhem (that’s not a complaint). It clocks in at a refreshingly compact 92 minutes, an assurance that it’s not really looking to transcend its knowing function as a bit of sci-fi pulp. Honestly, I have less patience for pretentious films that condescend to the audience with an unearned sense of self-importance.

The capable character-actor cast resides in the standby setting of many a low-budget flick: The Mansion In The Middle Of Nowhere. Morgan recalls the limited settings of SpliceThe Atomic Brain, and even the brilliant Beyond the Black Rainbow. Corporate risk assessor Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is dispatched to said mansion to evaluate AI Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy); her creators, Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones) and Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) argue strongly for the project’s continuance. Also on hand is pseudo-bohemian behaviorist Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), spacey matron Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and – why not – a beefcake cook (Boyd Holbrook) who’s also an experienced hunter (foreshadow much?). In a bit of Freudian irony, the  unwitting instigator to Morgan’s apeshit rampage is an antagonistic psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) who sows seeds of doubt without acknowledging the capabilities of his patient.

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Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) doing damage control. Image source: joblo.com

It’s a strange film that turns its familiar elements into strengths. While Scott’s blocking and editing during action scenes is questionable (including some odd reaction shots), he also possesses Ridley’s attention to detail in slick, heightened visuals. The scene with the psychiatrist is brilliantly staged, with the main cast observing on the other side of bulletproof glass in a stoic, fascinated way that suggests people bracing for – but hoping against – the worst possible outcome. The flashbacks to Morgan and Amy wandering the nearby forest have a poignancy in images of water flowing downstream and sun beaming between trees. Similarly, a moment where Morgan “discovers” mortality via a suffering-animal metaphor has impact, and informs her existential confusion for the remainder of the film.

Ultimately, the characters are not given the necessary time to grow beyond two dimensions, but the ensemble cast becomes one of Morgan‘s biggest strengths. Taylor-Joy, who made a huge impression in The Witch, shows different shades of depth here, existing somewhere between a little girl lost and Ms. 45. As the steely, mission-minded mercenary, Weathers plays to Mara’s stoic strengths. Leslie and Leigh hit notes of empathy, delusion, and desperation with conviction. Not surprisingly, Giamatti steals his couple minutes of screen time, with Taylor-Joy making for a more than formidable foil.

Morgan is familiar enough that seasoned sci-fi fans will find it thematically old-hat and basic, but the eclectic cast may see it generate some additional interest on home video. With one’s expectations properly adjusted, it makes for a well-performed, intriguing-enough way to spend 92 minutes. In some ways, the thematic elements of experimentation also reflect Scott’s indoctrination into the world of feature filmmaking with a marginal yet entertaining effort that tables its bigger questions for later down the road. And it marks Taylor-Joy as an exciting, emerging talent whose star will do nothing but rise in the years to come.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 6 out of 10