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08 Sep 2016

We've Seen It All Before: Great Acting and Wonderful Visuals Can't Overcome the Derivative Script in 'Morgan'

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Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Mara in Morgan. Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Mara in Morgan.

While Luke Scott has definitely inherited some directing chops from his dad, Ridley, his feature-directing debut is hampered by a derivative script.

Morgan shows that Luke Scott knows how to produce some major visual flair (his dad is a producer, by the way) and has an ability to draw good performances from his cast—but the movie itself is a pastiche of other science-fiction and horror films, most notably his dad’s own Blade Runner.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an artificially created humanlike being. She’s only 5, but she looks like a teenager and has superior intellect and physical skills. She’s been genetically engineered to age quickly, and while she is basically a well-meaning entity, her behavioral wires get a little crossed up sometimes—resulting in violent “errors.”

Morgan goes ape shit when she’s not allowed outside. This results in Dr. Kathy Grieff, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, being on pain meds for the whole movie while she wears bloody gauze on one eye. The “corporation” that helped create Morgan sends out an icy company woman, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess the matter and recommend a course of action regarding Morgan.

The setting for the film is visually pleasing; it’s an underground laboratory in the middle of a pine forest. This setting also gives the film a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (minus the snow). Morgan is always monitored through a glass wall and video cameras (shades of Ex Machina).

Giving another great 2016 performance (after The Witch), Taylor-Joy gives Morgan some dimension. Dressed in a grey hoodie and sporting a silvery skin tone that makes her look like a skater girl with terrible makeup skills, Taylor-Joy rises well above the conventionality of the role. She delivers a tragic android who probably would’ve led an interesting life had her personality dials been turned down just a tad.

Mara’s presence always feels a little off, something that the story eventually explains in a fashion that isn’t as shocking as screenwriter Seth W. Owen wants it to be. Paul Giamatti shows up as a behavior therapist who intentionally pushes Morgan’s buttons during a personality test. His fate is rather easy to predict.

The cast is peppered with a few more greats, including Toby Jones as the lead scientist who has a big, unnatural attachment to his creation. Michelle Yeoh also shows up as another scientist and Morgan’s mother figure, while the aforementioned Leigh has a few scenes that she imbibes with her usual reliability.

It all looks good thanks to stellar work from cinematographer Mark Patten, who worked in the “camera department” while not leading the shoot for Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s an impressive debut for Patten, while Max Richter provides an excellent soundtrack.

These good performances, great visuals and slick sounds make it more of a bummer that the movie feels a bit stale. I, for one, was not at all happy with the payoff—a big twist that felt completely unnecessary and cheap. Had the movie wrapped up on a more original note, it could’ve been decent-enough genre fare.

Morgan is a near-miss. A few too many scenes play out in a way that will have you correctly guessing what happens next. Scott will be constructing a scene with major tension, but then it will fall flat due to that predictability. It does continue the promising career of Taylor-Joy, who almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. She’s not done with horror films; she will headline the scary looking Split from the mildly resurgent M. Night Shyamalan next year.

As for Luke Scott, he’s a director worth watching. Daddy just needs to find his boy a better script to play with the next time out.

Morgan is playing at theaters across the valley.

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