“Morgan” (2016) Directed by Jake Scott. Starring Anya-Taylor Joy, Kate Mara and Paul Giamatti. After attacking a scientist at an isolated woodland laboratory, a synthetic being named Morgan is analyzed by an arrogant psychiatrist and an icy risk management consultant. Will the robotics corporation that funds the operation nix Morgan or order more copies made?
In the directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son, the titular cyborg Morgan is trapped in two different prisons. One is a spacious high-tech observation cell, and the other is an underdeveloped script by Seth W. Owen. Morgan is a far more fascinating monster than the formulaic and flawed script deserves, and like the doting scientists in the film, Owen and Jake don’t seem to know what they have here.
Dr. Cheng, who presides over the cyborg project, is the survivor of the dreaded Helsinki Incident, which set back AI testing for years. During an early attempt to create artificially intelligent life forms in Finland, over 21 scientists were murdered by rampaging androids. Her life’s work in the aftermath is to create a living machine that can think and feel without specific command directives. She thinks that by instilling the capacity for learning and emotional growth into a cybernetic organism, they can help it build a moral compass.
After two grotesquely failed attempts at using synthetic DNA to create humanoid life, a group of researchers find that the third time is the charm. During the process, the cellular structure of the organic subject Morgan (Anya-Taylor Joy) is embedded with nanobots (microscopic robots that give her super-human strength and agility. Because that’s what a cyborg needs to grow up to be an efficient killing machine!).
From day one, Morgan is doted on by her research team/surrogate family, especially her behaviorist Amy Menser (Rose Leslie). The staff is entirely smitten with the young cyborg, despite her eerie black doll eyes, silver hair and corpse-grey skin. Their love for the artificial child becomes a stumbling block for risk assessment agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) as she tries to determine why Morgan suddenly stabbed a staff member during a quiet meal.
After having her outdoor exploration privileges revoked for wandering too far from the underground lab (and killing a deer), Morgan is imprisoned in a glass-lined cell. Then she stabs one of her biggest fans in the eye. (It’s not that hard to figure out why she lashed out violently…is it?)
Lee Weathers interviews each staff member and Morgan. We slowly learn that her agenda has nothing to do with risk assessment. The decision that she was sent to make had already been set in stone.
Through video footage, we see Morgan in happier days, discovering the outside world as a toddler and joking around with her handlers as an adult. Her infectious smile and wide-eyed innocence make it easy to see why the staff fell in love with her. She’s a walking miracle, a fusion of hard science and something less tangible, like an actual soul.
Morgan is completely autonomous. She can form her own decisions, and can dream, aspire and imagine things.
A psychiatrist named Dr. Shapiro (played by the incomparable Paul Giamatti) arrives to assess the cyborg’s mental state and determine how it processes emotions. He discovers that Morgan is warped inside, incapable of restraining herself in the face of strong emotions and lacking in empathy. Morgan is smart enough to know how to demonstrate the expressions of remorse, but she can’t truly understand or experience it.
She’s a cybernetic psychopath.
In this brief and extremely tense psychoanalysis scene, the film becomes electric.
Once the decision is made to end Morgan’s strange life and the “thriller” sequences start, all the juicy questions about the depth of artificial humanity and its creators responsibilities are replaced by bland car chases and the dull conclusion that Morgan is simply evil and must be destroyed. Boring!
Phone the pitchfork wielding villagers and light the torches! The monster is loose! The monster who just wants to stand next to a beautiful lake and weep softly at the view of nature’s quiet miracle. Get her before she enjoys a butterfly passing by!
The girl doesn’t want to build a machine to blow up the Earth or somehow enslave humanity. She wants to look at a body of water in the woods and shed robot tears. Tackle her!
When push finally comes to shove, her mechanical aspects aren’t the true danger. It’s her humanity and capacity to feel and desire that ultimately ignite the spark of violence.
And she’s pretty good at violence.
Her lightning-fast reflexes and inhuman strength allow her to easily overcome even the burliest men with martial arts. As she nimbly sidesteps their attacks and retaliates with punishing force, you can FEEL how much it hurts her victims. There’s a reason the movie is rated R. Plus, she enjoys such past times as rapidly disarming opponents and beating them to death with their own guns. What? Like you’ve never.
At one point in the film, Cheng laments the team’s apparent mistakes:
“We failed you, Morgan.”
Actually, no. The occasionally dopey script failed her.
Morgan can control electronic devices with her mind, but not escape her electronically sealed cell? She has precognitive abilities that enable her to read other’s thoughts, though she is quite surprised several times at the actions of the staff. Kate Mara and her peculiarly lifeless performance are the centerpieces of an incredibly predictable last-minute twist that proves meaningless. It doesn’t affect the outcome in any way. I would rather have seen Morgan encounter something she’s never seen before, like a bustling city full of lights and sounds and information to digest.
But for all the issues, there’s much goodness in those 90 minutes, too. The fight choreography is fun to watch and the performances kill: Rose Leslie as the sweet and trusting Amy, Boyd Holbrook as the charming laboratory nutritionist Skip who never liked Morgan, Toby Jones as a geneticist so impressed with his work he can’t see the growing darkness in it, Michelle Yeoh as the haunted project leader Dr. Cheng, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Morgan’s first victim and Paul Giamatti as the ill-fated Dr. Shapiro.
And of course, last but never least, the wonderfully talented Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan herself. Her incredible work in “The Witch” was no fluke, and she brings her expressive face and depth of characterization to a much more physically demanding role.
The cast and their captivating performances help pave over some of the screenplay’s strange failings. If nothing else, Morgan has added to the pantheon of memorable and complicated movie monsters by being so fascinating she transcends the weakness and plot holes of the story.