Morgan (Luke Scott, 2016) 1½ out of 4 stars
Morgan opens with a brutal attack, seen through a security camera, on an unknown woman by another unknown woman in an unknown facility. In the bit of dialogue we hear, the victim attempts to comfort the perpetrator over some sort of punishment meted out by whoever is in charge. Suddenly, the second woman erupts in violence, stabbing the first woman in the eye, repeatedly. Strangely enough, this will not be the end of their relationship.
Of such credulity-straining oddities is this film made. As it progresses, more ties that sane people would long have severed remain strong, impervious to the murderous rage of everyone’s object of affection. And object she is (at least as her parent corporation sees her), for Morgan, the titular character and opening attacker is an A.I., shorthand for “artificial intelligence.” She’s five years old, and at the seeming limit of her utility.
If that premise sounds eerily familiar to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where psychotic five-year-old artificial creatures target their human creators, it is. The resemblance is even more disturbing when one considers that director Luke Scott is Ridley’s son. In his feature debut, he chooses to imitate Dad, which may be the sincerest form of flattery (and Ridley is a producer on the film, to boot, which might explain the depth and breadth of the cast), but given the mess on screen, and the hatred of the child for its parents, it’s quite a creepy tribute.
Right after the opening, we meet a new character, seen in drone footage that recalls the same overhead security camera of the first scene. A car drives down wooded ways, inside of which sits Lee Weathers (Kate Mara, Fantastic Four), talking on the phone to her boss, who sounds just like Brian Cox (Red 2) … because it is. Despite the promising visual smarts of the parallel aesthetics of scenes 1 and 2, we know we’re in trouble when most of Mara’s and Cox’s dialogue serves as painful exposition of the set-up. Weathers is a fixer, sent by the corporation that commissioned Morgan to clean up the situation, either by solving the conundrum of what went wrong or terminating the project.
The film is not without its strengths in this early part, as we meet the members of the scientific team that developed Morgan’s technology, but before long – once Scott opts for a more conventional blood bath – whatever originality remained after the borrowed premise is completely discarded. Some of the actors are quite good, so it’s a shame. Mara does much with very little, her affectless stare appropriately oblique, until the script gives her game away. Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine), Boyd Holbrook (Little Accidents), Vinette Robinson (The A Word) and, especially, Rose Leslie (The Last Witch Hunter) all acquit themselves admirably, despite the increasing ridiculousness of their continued devotion to their devilish spawn. Speaking of which, Anya Taylor-Joy (so stunningly brilliant in The Witch), as Morgan, performs with great gusto, and is mostly mesmerizing until one false direction too many just makes her another movie villain to be taken down. The less said about Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton), Toby Jones (Infamous) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) here, the better.
Perhaps it’s just a metaphor for the family dynamic, dysfunction and all. Siblings fight – sometimes fatally – while children attempt a palace coup. Morgan is the repository of her collective designers’ hopes and dreams, and when she disappoints, their hearts are broken. The problem is, Scott can’t decide what kind of a movie he’s trying to make. Is it an intellectual examination about the risks of creating artificial life? If so, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, despite its flaws, did it better. Is it a violent thriller where our protagonist must overcome a high body count to survive? Or does Scott even know? Maybe it was all just to show Dad he could make a movie. Better luck with your sophomore effort, Mr. Scott, and may the consequences of your failure involve no retaliatory bloodshed. Here’s hoping!