Morgan: “Synthetic-sapient DNA, Sentient Hybrid”


Morgan: “Synthetic-sapient DNA, Sentient Hybrid”

Battle of the Sex Bots


Morgan: “Synthetic-sapient DNA, Sentient Hybrid” in this film impart important life lessons in the guise of entertainment. For instance, thanks to Oliver Stone’s “The Hand” from 1981, I will never EVER stick my own hand out of a window while driving in a car, lest it ends up being sliced off and skedaddles away in order to commit acts of great evil.   But one fairly consistent cinematic rule of thumb, especially in horror and sci-fi movies that range from 1931’s “Frankenstein” to last year’s “Ex Machina,” is this: Do not be tempted to play God and create an artificial, human-like being. Such incidents of hubris almost never turn out well. Stick with imaginary friends if you must, although they sometimes turn out badly, too (i.e. “Drop Dead Fred”).

 

Why did anyone think that locking Morgan up would be a good thing?

Battle of the Sex Bots

Battle of the Sex Bots

I understand the desire to explore what humanity can become. But if you are making a Synthetic-sapient DNA, Sentient Hybrid, why would you assume that this synthetic human, named Morgan, wouldn’t also have human feelings? Solitary confinement has been proven to affect a person’s mental and emotional state. It seems like Morgan’s captors are getting what they deserve for imprisoning her.  Along comes “Morgan” to add to the chorus of misguided scientists who have proclaimed a variation on “It’s alive!” over the years. This cautionary thriller about the dangers of bioengineering doubles as a kind of a passing of the torch (not carried by angry villagers) between directors with shared DNA. That would be Luke Scott, making his feature debut, and father Ridley, who acts as producer. Clearly, this son, who was a second unit director on Dad’s “The Martian” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” has paid attention to the old man’s output over the years since “Morgan” is littered with obvious nods.

But it makes sense, considering that Sir Ridley’s “Alien” remains one of the most influential examples of big-screen sci-fi spookiness ever made and even features a devious fake human in the form of Ian Holm’s android Ash. In addition, “Morgan” concludes with a very physical face-off between two strong females not unlike the one between Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the alien queen, while also boasting a commendably diverse cast, much like such Scott productions as “The Martian” and TV’s “The Good Wife.”

But sometimes such formulaic familiarity proves to be a drawback in a genre that is propelled in large part by plot developments meant to catch the audience off guard. For instance, the minute we see the determined visage and no-nonsense coif of Kate Mara’s risk-management consultant Lee Weathers as she drives down a gravel road to a remote woodsy compound, she is obviously not an entity to be messed with or taken lightly.

Maybe too obvious?

“Corporate,” we learn, has sent her to assess the circumstances surrounding a horribly violent attack committed by Morgan, an artificial being in the guise of a fair-skinned waif of a teen girl, on one of her caretakers, behavioral psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, with one eye obscured by a bloody bandage). Much like a detective, Lee meets and assesses the other members of this seven-member family-like collective who are responsible for Morgan’s “birth” five years ago and monitoring her rapid growth. The close-knit crew all treat Morgan—who continues to evolve both physically and mentally—as if they were proud parents reveling in their magical child’s achievements rather than objective observers of an unknown and potentially dangerous quantity.

 

Battle of the Sex Bots

Films often impart important life lessons in the guise of entertainment. For instance, thanks to Oliver Stone’s “The Hand” from 1981, I will never EVER stick my own hand out of a window while driving in a car, lest it ends up being sliced off and skedaddles away in order to commit acts of great evil.

But one fairly consistent cinematic rule of thumb, especially in horror and sci-fi movies that range from 1931’s “Frankenstein” to last year’s “Ex Machina,” is this: Do not be tempted to play God and create an artificial, human-like being. Such incidents of hubris almost never turn out well. Stick with imaginary friends if you must, although they sometimes turn out badly, too (i.e. “Drop Dead Fred”).

Along comes “Morgan” to add to the chorus of misguided scientists who have proclaimed a variation on “It’s alive!” over the years. This cautionary thriller about the dangers of bioengineering doubles as a kind of a passing of the torch (not carried by angry villagers) between directors with shared DNA. That would be Luke Scott, making his feature debut, and father Ridley, who acts as producer. Clearly, this son, who was a second unit director on Dad’s “The Martian” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” has paid attention to the old man’s output over the years since “Morgan” is littered with obvious nods.

But it makes sense, considering that Sir Ridley’s “Alien” remains one of the most influential examples of big-screen sci-fi spookiness ever made and even features a devious fake human in the form of Ian Holm’s android Ash. In addition, “Morgan” concludes with a very physical face-off between two strong females not unlike the one between Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the alien queen, while also boasting a commendably diverse cast, much like such Scott productions as “The Martian” and TV’s “The Good Wife.”

Festering MORGAN
Festering MORGAN

But sometimes such formulaic familiarity proves to be a drawback in a genre that is propelled in large part by plot developments meant to catch the audience off guard. For instance, the minute we see the determined visage and no-nonsense coif of Kate Mara’s risk-management consultant Lee Weathers as she drives down a gravel road to a remote woodsy compound, she is obviously not an entity to be messed with or taken lightly.  Maybe too obviously.

“Corporate,” we learn, has sent her to assess the circumstances surrounding a horribly violent attack committed by Morgan, an artificial being in the guise of a fair-skinned waif of a teen girl, on one of her caretakers, behavioral psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, with one eye obscured by a bloody bandage). Much like a detective, Lee meets and assesses the other members of this seven-member family-like collective who are responsible for Morgan’s “birth” five years ago and monitoring her rapid growth. The close-knit crew all treat Morgan—who continues to evolve both physically and mentally—as if they were proud parents reveling in their magical child’s achievements rather than objective observers of an unknown and potentially dangerous quantity.


Battle of the Sex Bots

Battle of the Sex Bots

Kathy even takes the blame for upsetting this nature-loving experimental being, since she told Morgan that she was basically grounded in her glass-enclosed bunker of a room. Lee counters this argument in no uncertain terms, “She is an ‘it.’ And ‘it’ has no rights.”  Even before Lee speaks to the rest of Morgan’s emotionally-invested handlers—the chief scientist in charge (Toby Jones), a doctor who Morgan refers to as “mother” (Michelle Yeoh), the soft-hearted psychoanalyst (Rose Leslie) who introduced Morgan to the great outdoors, the project’s hunky cook (Boyd Holbrook) and three other staffers—she appears ready to pull the plug on Morgan. Meeting her face-to-face through protective glass doesn’t change her mind.

When an outside shrink arrives and demands to enter Morgan’s space without protection to better determine whether she is malfunctioning, it is all but certain that the session is not going to end well once Morgan begins to taunt him about his unhappy personal life. That he is played by Paul Giamatti, who specializes in roles that require blowing one’s stack, means his very presence is like tossing a stick of lit dynamite into a building already engulfed in flames.

My diagnosis of why “Morgan” malfunctions as a chilling plunge into blood-splattered mayhem is that, before the midway point, it is pretty obvious what the eventual outcome and supposed big reveal will be. This is not the fault of the actors necessarily—there are highly respected talents involved here. It is just that we have seen most of this unfold before.

What does work is Morgan herself—or, rather, itself. If you overlook the overdone pasty sheen of her face and the obvious ghoulish lipstick on her lips, Anya Taylor-Joy—the star of this year’s truly creepy “The Witch”—imbues her character with an intriguing newborn-like aura, a calm if unsettling speech pattern and a tendency to explode into a terrifying fury within seconds Then there are her alien reptile eyes, peering into the naked psyches of those who dare confront her. Basically, if you end up liking “Morgan,” it will probably be because of Taylor-Joy.

I do have to get one small peeve off my chest. It seemed odd that the younger Scott decided to focus his camera on Lee’s New York license plate for so long during her arrival. It felt as if he were trying awfully hard to convince us that we were upstate somewhere in the wilds. Sure enough, “Morgan” was shot in Northern Ireland. I can spot blarney when I see it.

 

Battle of the Sex Bots

Battle of the Sex Bots

There’s an ongoing argument that runs through much of the movie “Morgan.” Should the title character, a tomboyish slip of a thing in an ever-present hoodie, be referred to as a “she” or an “it”? Living in a glassed-in cage, on the other side of which Morgan’s keepers monitor their young charge — only occasionally entering the cell for a brief interview — the movie’s apparently teenage protagonist opens the story with a jolt: by stabbing this odd little zoo’s nutritionist (an under-utilized Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the eye.

“Why the heck did she/it do that?” is the film’s central mystery. Along with that enigma, the murkiness surrounding the gender and provenance of Morgan (played by the otherworldly Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) animates the first act of this sci-fi thriller, which briefly flirts with becoming an “Ex Machina”-like think piece about what it means to be human in the age of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

All too soon, however, the movie abandons that line of inquiry for a far less fruitful and challenging narrative. Suddenly, disappointingly, “Morgan” becomes a cross between the underrated adolescent-assassin thriller “Hanna” and the worst parts of the “Terminator” franchise, as a second protagonist — a ruthless consultant from the research corporation that has bred Morgan from synthetic DNA — proceeds to investigate the cause of the stabbing incident and the “viability” of the firm’s “asset.”

Battle of the Sex Bots

Battle of the Sex Bots

That no-nonsense troubleshooter, played by Kate Mara, mostly bides her time as a chain of one bad decision after another starts forming, beginning with the choice to allow a shrink (Paul Giamatti) to interview Morgan. And by “interview,” I mean bait and taunt to such a degree that I thought, for a moment, that I was still watching Giamatti’s Dr. Eugene Landy from “Love & Mercy.” The malpractice session ends way before Morgan’s 50 minutes are up, and it ain’t pretty.

But just when you might be getting ready to write off “Morgan” for its lack of curiosity about the implications of our post-human future — in favor of a blood-and-guts monster movie — there’s a twist that will either knock your socks off or telegraph its arrival long before it pulls into the station. (I never saw it coming. When it hit, it came close to redeeming the sins of the film to that point. Others at my preview screening, however, found it thuddingly obvious. I’m convinced I missed it because I was too irritated by the film to pay close attention.)

In order for the trick of the film to work, however, one must hold “Morgan” to a standard that the movie is unlikely to live up to. If only the questions it asks were more involving, and not just philosophical window dressing on what is ultimately a fembot-in-a-cage action flick — albeit one with a nice bit of torque. If that were the case, then audiences might be genuinely distracted long enough for the misdirection to work its magic.

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