A tale of scientists creating a monster isn’t quite a tale as old as time, but it is a familiar one. Director Luke Scott— second-unit director on father Ridley’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings—uses his expertise to turn Morgan into a gorgeously shot film, but unfortunately it’s one that doesn’t break much new ground with its story.
The first thing we see in Morgan is surveillance footage of the title character, a stunningly real-looking artificial human, attacking a caregiver who is treating her with motherly kindness. Clearly, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, proving her breakout in The Witch was no fluke) is both bioengineering breakthrough and a medical monstrosity; she’s the former to her “family” of scientists, but the latter to Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk-management specialist from the nebulous corporation that’s funding the project, who is dispatched to assess the situation after Morgan has her terrifying outburst.
Lee’s arrival at the rural facility is extremely invasive to the family that Morgan and her handlers have formed. Things get much worse when another stranger, the caustic Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), arrives to run a psych evaluation on Morgan. It ends very badly, and the insular world the close-knit team has built for themselves smashes apart for good.
Morgan is most intriguing when it’s pondering its central dilemma, succinctly encapsulated by Lee’s insistence that Morgan is not a “she,” but an “it.” By contrast, most of the doctors—the high-caliber cast includes Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, and Jennifer Jason Leigh—have come to consider Morgan to be human in the five years since her creation. Their investment has become personal. They love her, and Morgan says that she loves them back. The one doctor who remains distant is Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), who has seen an another artificial human project go awry in the past; ironically, she’s the person who Morgan calls “mother.”
Can Morgan, who is obviously capable of anger, really feel other emotions like affection and remorse? Her interior life remains mostly a mystery, but frustratingly the film becomes less concerned with its deeper queries as it progresses. The trajectory of Morgan’s narrative offers very few surprises. We’ve seen what Morgan is capable of, and even after we get to know her a little (she’s soft-spoken and polite, listens to opera, loves nature), we know it’s only a matter of time before she lashes out again. When she does, the film shifts into full-on action mode, complete with a chase scene and several gruesome fights, ending with a last-act reveal not as surprising as it’s supposed to be.
Morgan is not as boundary-pushing as it could have been—it’s nowhere near as original as last year’s Ex Machina, which explored similar themes but felt completely fresh in a way that Morgan doesn’t. (Alas, no AI dance number in this one.) But it’s an intriguing film with a lot going for it, including visual flair and outstanding performances by Giamatti, Mara, and especially the eerie Taylor-Joy. It’s certainly worth checking out; just don’t expect to be blown away.
Morgan is out September 2.