Luke Scott’s Morgan begins as a science fiction story that raises ethical questions while offering an intimate and even paranoid character study. The promise of that set-up comes through in the two lead performances, but the story itself dashes away its potential in a disappointing second half.
Deep in the woods, in a rundown country estate, scientists have brought an artificial human to life using synthetic DNA. This is Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). She is five years old but has already grown to the age of a teenager. The scientists monitor her development through interaction. When Morgan gets violent with one scientist (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the corporation behind this program sends risk-management consultant Lee (Kate Mara) to check in on proceedings.
Mara is the center of the film. She and Scott do a wonderful job of making her distinct from the scientists she has come to visit. Everyone working on the Morgan project is in comfortable loose clothing, the men unshaven and most of the women with loose long hair. Lee wears a short pixie-ish haircut, adorned by tight dark jackets and almost always heels. Mara does excellent work as a singular presence among strangers. She is playing a cold character but one that is never detached. Lee is a great observer and manipulator, traits Mara excels at playing. Lee’s alien presence is an intriguing place to start. All of the scientists are sympathetic to Morgan, even after she was violent. The potential for a story about secrets and betrayals, like the recent horror film The Invitation, is there. But the script, by Seth Owen, already seems to be taking the easy way out. A conversation between Mara and Leigh’s characters features some very tin-eared foreshadowing, only saved by committed performances.
The drama only deepens when Lee, and the audience, actually meet Morgan. Even though she is an artificial life form, not unlike a robot, Taylor-Joy plays her with great emotion and even frailty. The contrast between her and Lee are clear from the start. Scott gives Morgan an otherworldly look. Her pale skin and grey lips makes her seem like a corpse. That only makes the energy in Taylor-Joy’s performance that much more welcome. She’s is a fascinating mix of contradictions.
Unfortunately, the high point of Taylor-Joy’s performance also signals the film’s downfall. Paul Giamatti appears for a small but crucial role as a psychologist assigned to interview Morgan. The interview gets tense, but Scott plays his hand too early. It’s made all too obvious that something is going to break bad here. The ambiguity of Morgan’s character gives way to sensationalism. Giamatti and Taylor-Joy do not hold back in their performances, but they are elevating mundane choices in the script and direction.
From there, any ambiguity or complexity storytelling is smothered by genre expectations. Supporting characters make silly decisions, which allows the film to kill them off in an efficient manner. The film tries to be something of a slasher without building the tension the best slashers do. There are moments where characters get into hand-to-hand fights, and while the fight choreography is well done, it’s a shame that the emotional storytelling has ceased by this point.
Morgan may get a lot of comparisons to Ex Machina, as both deal with artificial intelligence experiments in remote locations. But the better comparison is District 9, another film that starts with a novel concept before becoming something much more cliché than what is promised.