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morgan-2016

D: Luke Scott / 92m

Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox

As the song has it, “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…” Not once you see Kate Mara’s risk assessment consultant, Lee Weathers, driving to a facility hidden deep in the woods where a science experiment, codenamed L9, is going badly wrong. The experiment in question is the creation of a human/nano technology hybrid. The hybrid (Taylor-Joy) looks like a young woman, is called Morgan, is actually five years old, and has recently stabbed one of the team, Kathy (Leigh), repeatedly in the face and blinded them in their left eye. With a psych evaluation planned to take place that will determine whether or not the project continues, Lee’s role is to make the final decision, either to continue the work or to shut it down.

For everyone’s safety, Morgan is confined to a room that has toughened glass from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. She appears to understand the need for this, but the team are overly apologetic about the incident with Kathy. They all state that it was their fault and not Morgan’s; they should have known better, should have been paying better attention to her current mental state. Lee takes none of this for granted, but does accept that they treat Morgan more as a human being than as a thing. When the psychiatrist, Dr Alan Shapiro (Giamatti), arrives the next day to conduct his assessment, his approach goads Morgan to anger, and a violent outburst means that Lee has no option but to shut down the project.

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She’s stopped, though, by the team. Rendered unconscious, she awakes in Morgan’s safe room, while the team’s own efforts to control the situation – and Morgan – start to unravel at an alarming rate. By the time Lee finds a way out of the room, Morgan’s determination to be free from the confines of the facility has proven disastrous for the team, and she makes her escape, taking along Amy (Leslie), who is the one member of the team that Morgan considers is her friend. But Lee is equally determined to find Morgan and make sure that the project is shut down once and for all.

Morgan is director Luke Scott’s first feature, a step up in terms of money and opportunity following his clever and impressive short movie, Loom (2012). That movie augured well for the future, but with Morgan it seems that Ridley Scott’s son has been let down by a poorly realised script, and the faint whiff of post-production interference. There’s little about the movie that works as well as it should, and long-time fans of this type of speculative sci-fi will be dismayed by the many ways in which the narrative shies away from making any kind of moral statement.

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Another screenplay picked out from the Black List (this time 2014’s), Morgan begins with a shocking act of violence, and continues with not one character reacting or behaving normally in its wake. Everyone carries on as if it was a minor incident, one that’s hardly worth bothering about. Morgan behaving strangely is to be expected, but when the team behave even more strangely than she does, and right from the start, then it only serves to undermine the drama that follows. Only Michelle Yeoh’s mother figure acts as if she has any idea of the consequences to Morgan’s actions, but she’s allotted so little screen time that she becomes the occasional, and token, voice of reason, trotted out to offer a limited balance to everyone else’s strange behaviour.

Things are further hampered by the character of Lee, played with stony-faced antipathy by Mara. It’s a role that’s difficult to talk about without revealing too much of why the character is at the facility in the first place, but while she’s an outsider given over to remaining so, Mara provides a better performance than expected, giving Lee an unexpected likeability even though she’s pretty much there to conduct a corporate hatchet job if necessary. As the movie progresses, her minimal social skills are stripped away, and Mara again strikes a careful balance between “assassin for hire” and consultant doing her job. She’s matched by Taylor-Joy, whose bleached looks and unnerving stare never quite manage to morph into the features of someone you could trust implicitly. Though her motivation becomes more and more strained as the movie continues, her performance highlights the emotions that Morgan has managed to express, even though she can’t understand them properly.

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Alas, the rest of the cast aren’t given nearly enough to make their roles worthwhile, and as you might expect, some are just waiting around until Morgan decides that everyone is surplus to requirements. The final half hour ups the ante in terms of action, and Mara and Taylor-Joy enjoy some well-choreographed fight scenes, but even then there’s a distinct lack of tension or energy. Scott seems unable to inject the necessary spark to make things that much more exciting, and the movie suffers as a result. As it heads towards an inevitable conclusion, one that it’s set up right from the moment we first see Lee in her car, Morgan begins to look and sound and feel like another great idea for a movie given the least amount of commitment by all involved. That’s not entirely true, but there are large stretches where the viewer won’t be able to shake off that feeling at all.

Watching Morgan, there’s an obvious correlation with Ex Machina (2015), but this is a different movie with a different agenda, and nowhere near as complex. The script by Seth W. Owen isn’t as fully rounded or well thought out as it needs to be, and Scott never really finds a way to avoid the pitfalls that Owen has left in situ. And watching the movie unfold, and the speed with which it changes direction from a somewhat intriguing sci-fi thriller to all-out action drama, it does smack a little of interference in the post-production stages, as if the producers had realised that the movie was in danger of losing its audience altogether if it didn’t change tack. On the plus side, the movie does have a decent score courtesy of Max Richter, and Tom McCullagh’s production design does help to anchor the movie in a more realistic fashion than the script does.

Rating: 4/10 – what could have been an intriguing, thought-provoking movie is scuppered by poor narrative choices, a lack of credible characterisations, and a shift in tone two thirds in that alters the movie’s trajectory as if no one would notice; a good idea given a lacklustre presentation, Morgan will only satisfy those viewers who don’t expect much from sci-fi thrillers, or are comfortable looking at things only on a superficial level.

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