During a regular old breakfast, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch), a not-so-regular teenage girl, stabs her handler repeatedly in the eye. Now we all know that the teenage years can be rough. Hormones are raging etc. I’m sure we’ve all flipped out over some light cornflakes chatter, but not to the extent where we’re shiving poor old Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh – Annihilation) in the eyeball. In the normal world Morgan would probably go to some psyche unit, maybe even juvey. But this Morgan isn’t in the normal world. Nor is she a normal girl. She’s a synthetic lifeform. A skin job with accelerated growth, learning abilities and super strength. She’s the result of a five year project to bring to life the newest and most advanced range of artificial humanoids, the L-9. And this little hiccup could jeopardize everything…
What normally happens when some crazed creation goes off the reservation and starts thinking for itself swiftly followed by chopping down civilians? Usually the marines are called in. Hugh Jackman (Chappie) or Harrison Ford (Blade Runner) would be choppered in, we’d lose maybe a city block or something, but the damn thing would be put down. In this case, Morgan represents too big an investment for The Company. This needs a more measured hand. It needs the caress of a “risk management specialist”. Enter Lee Weathers (Kate Mara – The Martian).
Okay, so it’s hardly a badass job description. But we’ve known and loved plenty of other films about otherwise inane and dull professions. Lawyers, repo men, office drones, clerks etc. So I’m gonna go with this one. Hold up on that phone call to Arnold. We don’t need him. Yet. Let’s stick with Lee. Her role is to assess the feasibility of the project. Was the incident just an accident, an isolated blip on the potential lifespan of a successful new product? Or is it endemic to something far more corrupt at the heart of the model? Just as long as it’s not another “Helsinki incident” things will be fine.
Lee’s given absolute power via a shadowy handler (voiced by Brian Cox – X-Men 2) and her decision will be final. And she won’t be alone either. During her stay she’ll be joined by a high level psychologist that specializes in artificial intelligence. He’s such a badass at this sort of thing, he claims he could psycho-analyse a toaster. To be fair mate, I think we all could. It’s not that complicated a piece of equipment. But we get your point.
From the outside Lee is what you’d expect; a buttoned down, suit-wearing, no bullshit-type professional woman. Some might call her cold. She’d say she’s just doing her job. And it’s likely she’s gonna ruffle some weathers here. I got that whole Jessica Chastain from Zero Dark Thirty vibe here. She’s not here to take orders. She’s here to take over. Kate Mara, who I expected to have been in a lot of quirky independent or girl power movies, turns down the spunky charm here, and dials up that “I’m one woman against the world” don’t-give-a-fuck to decent effect. She’s not as cruel as the psychologist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti – The Negotiator), but nor is she as emotionally crippled by Morgan as everyone else. We have faith she’s gonna make the right call, so all credit to Mara for her performance.
The L-9 project has been on-going for over seven years now with the primary scientists ensconced in a facility far from civilization. The company suspect they may have gotten too close to their creation, that their objectivity has been compromised by Morgan’s apparent emerging humanness. Is it a case of cabin fever, or is the creation pulling their strings? Lee is gonna have to figure it all out.
Man they were right about it being in the middle of nowhere. Some ancient old building in the middle of a huge forest. The majority of the facility is underground and super modern. It’s the perfect place to develop a super secret project like this. No strangers are just gonna stumble in. But I bet the internet is slow. Lee gets a mixed reaction as she arrived. She’s welcomed by Dr. Ted Brenner (Michael Yare – Game of Thrones). He praises the work they’ve been doing and describes the incident as a mere accident. User error, if you will. He’s keen for Lee to meet Morgan, so that she’ll understand just how special she is. “It”, Lee corrects him. Morgan is an it, not a she. Uh oh.
While Brenner is cool to show Lee around, he’s sort of keeping her from meeting the real big cheeses of the operation, Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones – Captain America: The First Avenger) and specifically the renowned Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh – Tomorrow Never Dies). Instead he lets her get settled. Here she meets a behavioural therapist, Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie – Game of Thrones). She’s apparently too forthright for mainstream science, and is fiercely protective over Morgan. She boasts that Lee will soon see why everyone loves the little tyke.
Downstairs she bumps into resident chef and huntsmen Skip (Boyd Holbrook – Logan). He’s the only none-science type here, and beyond getting drunk and frisky with the few remaining single women on campus, he’s probably the only one who isn’t sold on Morgan. She creeps him out, he later confides to Lee. Why? Because she made the perfect risotto. You gotta cook with your heart and soul, apparently, and she should have neither. I sort of get where he’s coming from. Like in Chappie where the friendly little robot is painting and drawing, you’re made to question if creativity is a result of sentience. Surely, it’s something that can’t be taught or programmed. On the other-hand, Skip could represent the narrow-mind, olde world fearfulness of what he doesn’t understand type. He probably hates all this #metoo crap going on. But is he right or wrong about Morgan? Are any of them? This movie, I thought, is all about this sort of grey area and the resulting moral dilemmas that are inevitably going to arise once we truly start meddling with such things.
Finally Lee gets to meet Dr. Ziegler. I kind of smirked at the fact that Kate Mara is the same height as actor Toby Jones, who is so often shot as exceedingly small in big Hollywood movies. He’s another one firmly in the “Lets keep Morgan alive” camp. He quickly clues Lee up on the entire project; Morgan is the third of her kind. The first two failed (sadly we get no Alien: Resurrection “reject” scene). But Morgan succeeded. She’s effectively human, with nano-cells integrated with her own. She has aged rapidly, is incredibly intelligent, fast and strong. A perfect specimen in that regard. Etc etc.
However, unlike previous models in the L-series, instead of “programming her” as a mere automaton, the essence of the L-9 project was to nurture a more emotional side of the creation. To create a unique, adaptive new lifeform that can think, feel and act for itself (in the best interests of the company). Why a mega corp would want a crop of mopey teenagers on the market is only explained at the end; they’re of course to be marketed as weapons and agents. Naturally, a creation with independent thought would operate much more effectively that something with only a definitive set of parameters. It’s sort of like when you’re facing a boss in the computer game. He may be tough to beat initially. But once you learn his moves, his patterns, it becomes increasingly easy. What would happen if M. Bison or Liquid Snake or whichever boss you’re tangling with suddenly started adapting to your moves though?
Lets cut all these stalling tactics though. Lee knows all the theory. She’s been fully briefed. She’d like to see Morgan for herself. Right now.
Morgan is kept in a cell that is made to look much like a home, but is still a cell, a lab. There is no escape. She can’t break through the glass viewing wall. She doesn’t have access to Ray Breslin’s book about escaping prisons like in Escape Plan. It’s like that lab Eric Stolz grows up in in the Fly 2. Or that girl in Species. Lots of furniture, personal possessions, books. Sadly, like much of the film, we never really get the chance to explore this space. Here Lee meet’s two other of Morgan’s minders, Darren and Brenda finch. Like everyone else, they see her as their surrogate child. Totally not impartial doctory types.
Any way, Lee has her first encounter with Morgan. Appearing out of the shadows listening to dramatic opera we finally get to see the eponymous, potentially ground-breaking and eye-stabbing girl of the hour. Sheathed in heavy grey clothes, she perpetually keeps her hood tight around her head. I was immediately drawn to this element. Are we gonna see some kind of cool circuitry underneath? Is she balding or bald? Does she have some cool bar code tattoos. Unfortunately she just had hair. I’m sure it was Harold Pinter (or some other playwright named after a beer) who said that if you show a gun in act one, it has to be fired by act 3. Well, this whole hood business is a total ruse motherfuckers.
Ignoring this, the second thing we’re drawn to is her unusually pale skin. It’s almost silver. Not as silver as Jason Statham (Hummingbird) in that music video, more like if you’d ran to the top of Mt. Everest in your pants. Verbally Morgan can communicate. But it’s disjointed, moving from one subject matter to the other. It’s as if she’s obeying the rules of polite conversation, but sticking to them rigidly. The gist of the movie is that while she is reaching physical maturity and exhibits an intellect far beyond our own, she’s still only five years old. She’s not had the chance to mature or develop those skills and experiences that define us as people. Basically she hasn’t experienced any of the crushing misery of adulthood. In essence, Amy tells us, she is still a child. Yes, a child who can snap your neck.
When she’s asked about what she did to Kathy she says she feels guilty. She adds that “that is the correct response”. Yes it is Morgan, like telling your wife that she doesn’t look fat in any clothes she tries on. Taylor-Joy really plays this side of the character well. She has a certain naivety and innocence, but tempered with this awful thing she’s done. Is she exerting some kind of control over people? Is it all some elaborate ruse? To be honest, I didn’t get that impression. I think it’s natural for a group of people to bond with a child (albeit a fast growing one). There’s nothing nefarious about that. But her performance do bring Morgan’s true motivations into question, which keeps us guessing.
Lee too see’s the human side of her. We all do. But when the good Dr. Shapiro arrives he starts pushing buttons. I thought it odd that he’d go into a locked room, alone, with something that had eye-popped another adult, and then start taunting her. It’s almost inevitable that she flips out and all hell starts to break loose. We think Lee knows what she has to do. It’s not gonna be nice, and it’s not gonna be easy. And she’s gonna get no help…
Morgan is a film that could go in a million directions. You have the mystery element, the sci-fi stuff, the shadowy government agenda angle, a secretive group of scientists and a potentially badass robo-villainess/innocent. It touches base with all of these things, but never focuses on one area. It’s like a teenage girl going through that phase of trying to find herself; is she a goth, a preppy class president, a cheerleader, a nerd etc. Morgan flits from one genre to the other and lacks any sort of identity because of it.
This indecision permeates through the movie. You know you’ve got a fundamentally uncinematic movie when the poster is really dull. If it can’t find a single instance or moment from the film to champion on the DVD cover, you’ve got problems. The art direction is just as uninspired. It’s a wash with greys and darkness. The old house they are set up in looks fantastic, but we barely explore it. Ditto with the installation. Compare it to Ex Machina (shot by DP Rob Hardy who’d also capture the beautifully rendered Annihilation). While it only had an extra $5 mil to play with, it is replete with color and vision. It is cinematic. Morgan, on the other-hand just looks uninspired and forgettable, like a cheap hotel. Okay, I will admit the exterior location is stunning. There are some great shots of the mountains, lakes, trees and shit. But Christ, the action is all too close and shaky to get any sort of idea what is going on, with annoying shaky cam thrown in. Ong Bak or the Raid it is not.
Acting wise I’ve got no complaints. The cast is strong. But again, no one is really afforded the opportunity to develop any character. You just don’t end up caring for anyone. I’ll admit it, I liked Yeoh. While I felt her speech about the Helsinki incident went a bit too long (it should have been cut at “reports don’t do it justice” – further details lessen the badass ominousness of that statement), her fleeting presence in the film is well used each time. The real attention is on Mara and Taylor-Joy though, and while Mara’s Lee is pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get from beginning to end, the character of Morgan just wasn’t intriguing enough to capture me.
That’s no fault of Taylor-Joy though. There are just too few encounters or conversations or moments to get a sense of her character. She is certainly no mastermind, cunningly playing everyone so that she can escape (like in Ex Machina). She, and the film in general, sort of reminded me of an old Star Trek Next Gen episode called “The Offspring”. The ship’s resident android, Data, creates an artificial lifeform called Lal as his daughter. Unlike him, she has emotions and the episode is about whether she should be considered property or a person, and how she reacts and learns from her new experiences. It’s actually a really moving, thoughtful episode. Check it out.
This was Luke Scott’s first foray into solo directorhood. Previously, he’d been the AD on a few of his Dad Ridley’s movies including the Martian and Exodus. Now I’m not gonna be a shit and say this is movie nepotism at work, even if Ridley did produce the movie and there are a load of heavy hitter stars involved. I get the sense this was very much Luke Scott’s baby, and it’s a shame it doesn’t succeed as much as it should. It shares a lot in common with the aforementioned Ex Machina, but falls far short from the genius of Alex Garland’s own directorial debut in both the visual and narrative stakes.
One thing I did think of while watching was that this potentially could serve as a potential lead in to the Blade Runner universe. It has some of Ridley’s DNA in the movie for one thing, and the genus of thinking and feeling synthetic, “replicant” humanoids (and them running amok) is certainly not unfamiliar territory. Those crazy Blade Runner fans (you know who you are) will probably dig this movie if they think about it from that perspective. So get it watched.