SEPTEMBER 2, 2016
Not too long before I sat down to write this review, I saw that Morgan had one of the worst openings of all time for a movie playing on 2,000 screens or more (i.e. a movie they figured would attract a big audience - otherwise they'd open it much smaller), which can't be a fun thing for anyone involved. I mean when it's something like Major League: Back to the Minors (near Morgan on that sad little list), fine - that's a movie no one wanted and a sequel missing the cast that made the first two films popular, so it deserves the demerit. But an original sci-fi thriller (no, it's not really horror - bear with me, I'm getting to that) should have at least inspired more curiosity, especially when the cast is loaded with interesting character actors and dominated by three female leads - a rarity for all genres, not just this particular one.
But IS it technically original? The trailer kind of sold a different movie, something more akin to Hollow Man or Species, with a lab experiment going awry and the victim offing everyone involved, but there's one other thing it played up that's definitely accurate: Ridley Scott's involvement. His son Luke made his directorial debut here, and it's not uncommon for a big name director dad to throw his name on their child's project to help them get it going (look for Martin Scorsese's new superhero movie for very, very sad proof), but there's a little more than just a ceremonial involvement going on here, which would require spoilers. So if you're one of the 7 billion people who didn't see Morgan this weekend and don't want the twist spoiled, please leave now, or at least skip the next two paragraphs.
Right now, there's a sequel to a Ridley Scott classic being shot, but unlike Prometheus Ridley isn't sitting in the director's chair - he's just producing, and I can't help but wonder if he might get some deja vu since he also produced this, which kind of feels like a blend between low-key remake and prequel of Blade Runner*. As we learn for sure at the end (but many people figured out earlier), Kate Mara's character is actually another genetic experiment, albeit from a different "Phase" than the one played by The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy, the title character who has shown signs of murderous aggression and needs to be evaluated - should she be terminated, or is the risk worth continuing the study? Mara is Lee, the risk assessment consultant (or some buzzword-y title like that) who is sent by the mysterious company to check Morgan out and make that call, but as things get hairy we see Mara is unusually skilled at fighting and survival - just as good as Morgan, in fact! I mean, it's not too hard to figure out that she's more than just a cold-hearted careerwoman, and we know the company is up to no good because it's run by Bryan Cox, but it's not until the final scene, where Cox talks to his partners and we learn the mission wasn't really about Morgan, but Lee, and to see if SHE was a viable asset for them in the long run.
It's here that the BR connection really sunk in for me (if you did see it and figured that part out a lot earlier - forgive me, I was fighting a doze the whole movie due to my ongoing moving process and a week full of very abbreviated sleeping periods), because you can boil the movie down to "Something that looks human but isn't is tasked with finding/eliminating another faux human". They're not called "Replicants" here, but they're pretty much the same - A.I. programs that can pass for human. There are other little connections/references as well, like Giamatti's character, who basically only appears in one scene, a lengthy interrogation of Morgan designed to get a rise out of her and find out for sure what she's capable of - not unlike Blade Runner's Voight-Kampff test. It also shares that film's rather cold and unpleasant tone; it's easy to see why Fox released this at the end of the summer, as it's even more of a downer than Splice, another genetically engineered "human" goes crazy movie that this would comfortably share shelf space with.
Except, despite its presence here, it's not really even close to horror, despite the trailer playing up those freakier scenes. Yeah, there's a body count and there is interest from genre fans as it's Anya's first post-Witch movie, but none of it is really played for scares, and the mad science stuff is kept to a minimum (I only put that genre tag on here because it will be of interest to people looking for that sort of movie). The last 20 minutes are more like a straight up action film than anything else, as they involve a car chase, a shootout, and not one but two hand to hand fights between Morgan and Lee that are more Seagal than Species. Despite the sci-fi prominence, Splice really earned its genre placement with that horrifying demonstration scene and Dren's transformations, but there's nothing like that here, and I can't help but think Fox really blew it in the marketing on this one, making it look more like a creepy "locked in with a monster" movie than the low-key sci-fi film it really is.
And there's no easier bit of evidence of that than the fact that the trailer barely shows Rose Leslie at all, and yet she's almost a third lead as opposed to supporting character. Her name is Amy, and she's the behaviorist of the little Crichton-y group tasked with monitoring/caring for Morgan - and she's also something akin to a girlfriend to her (who is referred to as "it" by pretty much everyone else). So when Lee and some of the others decide Morgan has to be terminated, she's the one making sure Morgan is set free instead, and gets the most interesting arc in the movie as a result when Morgan starts killing everyone off. At first, she sees Morgan's actions as a sort of "They deserved it" kind of thing, but when Morgan takes down someone who was actually trying to help her, Amy starts showing doubt - maybe they were right? Morgan shows zero signs of aggression toward her, so we're not really afraid for her safety, but it's interesting to see how torn up she gets over her loved one's actions, and you wonder if/when she will finally turn against the increasingly uncontrollable Morgan (or if/when Morgan WILL indeed go so far that she hurts/kills Amy as well).
It's also interesting that it's a summer studio movie (an R rated genre one at that) primarily focused on three women, none of whom seem to be interested in men (in a movie written and directed by men, no less). It makes the movie's failure all the more sigh-worthy to me; every other week the bloggers and "Film Twitter" are finding things to complain about re: women in movies (low point of the summer - the complaints about Apocalypse choking Mystique in an X-Men movie where a guy with all the power in the world required two women to help him), and yet here's a movie where the women are ass-kickers, intelligent, and not defined in the slightest by their relationship to a male love interest. And none of those rabble rousers see it, let alone champion it. I don't think it's a perfect movie, but can you blame the studios for sticking to what works when they do something unique and no one shows up?
As for what makes it imperfect, well for one thing it's not particularly complicated - as misleading as the trailer is, it still manages to hit upon just about every major plot point (save Leslie's character), as there isn't much else to it beyond that. Even at 90 minutes, it feels a bit stretched to get to feature length; to be fair in retrospect some such scenes were just trying to misdirect us (going back into spoiler territory here: Lee jogging is a good example), but it doesn't make the movie any more engaging in the moment. It's hard to really like Mara's character, and it's also hard to feel any sympathy for Morgan after a while, when she coldly murders someone who had only tried to help her. Not that sympathy is really what Scott and writer Seth Owen seemed to be going for, but it still makes it hard to really get attached emotionally to the movie. Especially if you're deaf - Max Richter's score was wonderful and if I heard it isolated I'd probably assume it was for some Oscar bait drama.
But ultimately its biggest hurdle is that it's unfortunately too similar to too many other movies, particularly Ex Machina and the aforementioned Splice. The film is on a lower budget than either of those, and with a lot of it probably going to cast (I haven't even mentioned Toby Jones or Michelle Yeoh!), that means the movie spends a lot of time in the same few rooms and with a lot of talk instead of action, lacking the unique makeup FX of Splice or the visual prowess of Ex Machina (which won an Oscar, don't forget) while running through similar story beats. The hook is the thing we can't really talk about, and even if we could, it's not like it makes up an entire third act or something - it's a last minute reveal. Even if you figure it out sooner, it's merely a confirmation of something you suspected, not a game-changing plot point. Based on the box office, we can't expect Morgan 2.0 anytime soon (of course that would be the title, come on), so all we have is this one little movie that's perfectly enjoyable in that lazy Sunday kind of way, ending on a beat that makes you wish the filmmakers had gotten to it sooner.
What say you?
*I also don't particularly love that movie. Huge fan of the director, but it probably wouldn't even rank in my top 10 of his films. I've tried on numerous occasions, with at least two versions of it, but it just doesn't connect with me beyond appreciation on a visual level. And don't go looking for what movie I mean if you missed the * in the text, because that's the spoiler you were avoiding, hence the vague details here.