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Morgan Review: Artificial Unintelligence

By  · Published on August 31st, 2016

Movie Review

Morgan is Stupid Superhuman Sci-Fi That Can’t Make Up Its Mind

Too many genres cooking in this genetically-enhanced kitchen.

Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. I can stretch it to accept that we’ve put a man on Mars or that Orcs have invaded a medieval kingdom, but if a psychiatric professional starts acting in a stupid, aggressive way with one of their patients, I’m out of the film. I don’t need the plot to be completely logical. We have imaginations. But you want the people in your movies to make sense.

That’s the big problem with Luke Scott’s Morgan. Like his father Ridley, the director assembles a lot of big ideas and jumbles them together hoping something will connect. A shadowy organization is genetically engineering a superhuman off the grid under a creaky old mansion? I’ll buy it. The scientists want to protect their creation from corporate termination despite its violent tendencies? That makes sense.

But when the plot breaks free of its philosophizing and turns a Turing test into a schlocky rampage, the internal logic of the humans and that of the eponymous being becomes so fuzzy and moronic that the critical distinction of humanity the movie sets up feels meaningless.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a sci-fi combination of Jason Bourne and the terrible but lovely Ava from Ex Machina – a 1950s idea of an AI painted with the broad strokes of our military culture. She looks like a human – aside from her silly pallid makeup and blue-hued lipstick – but grew at an accelerated rate from infancy since she’s neither purely machine nor organic.

Creators are often blinded by their love for their creations – even if their babies become monsters. We’ve seen it many times in both horror and sci-fi stories, and these scientists are no less protective of their super human while warning signs flash at us in big neon letters: DANGER. Morgan is cold, violent, and gets by through the instinctive defensiveness of her keepers. To them she’s their child, not a weapon, no matter what she does.

Then Kate Mara’s cold, clinical “corporate troubleshooter,” Lee, arrives after Morgan ruptures the eye of a scientist whose PhD seems to be in victimhood (Jennifer Jason Leigh, appearing for about a minute in the film), and the mechanisms of investigation are set in motion.

Is Morgan a failed experiment that should be put down by this gun-toting professional? As Lee’s questioning begins, Mara and Taylor-Joy have a contest in emotionlessness while the rest of us twiddle our thumbs and take in the local crowd.

Morgan’s makers are played by a diverse cast whose talents are all wasted on inane dialogue or the stereotypical monotone of the on-screen overeducated. Here, the movie brushes against interesting material – like a pair of scientists who’ve fallen in love over the course of Morgan’s creation and study (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson, both endearing in underwritten roles) – that seems truncated to make room for more action-oriented fare.

The only resident at Morgan’s facility who doesn’t trust her with parental sanguinity is a chef (Boyd Holbrook), who drunkenly, and unsuccessfully, flirts with Lee. It helps that the actor delivers his lines with some personality, but his the only memorable performance outside of Mara playing heroin-chic risk-assessment Terminator.

The characters form relationships through their association with and difference from Morgan. She‘ll always be the couple’s little girl, but now she makes a perfect risotto on the first try and stabs people when upset. Analyzing the connections that form and change between people while researching their subjects – even if they study dangerous, damaging things – is a fascinating nuance of science, but it’s not sexy enough (and a bit too smart) for this film’s shifting sense of identity.

It doesn’t help that most of the film takes place in a bland grey containment facility that looks like someone glued part of an X-Men set to the labs and hallways of Jason X (the one where he goes to space). As soon as the camera breaks free of that space, it suns itself in the open air, appreciating every tree-cast shadow and rippling lake surface.

We spend so long meandering through this film that when it violently escalates with tonal abandon, you can’t help but laugh at the whiplash. The hint of character study is smashed against the wall as running and gunning replaces the film’s brief hints of intellectual dabbling.

By the time this happens, the plot has escaped its confines and the characters have escaped any semblance of consistency – the heavy-handed contemplation of the film’s first two acts replaced with the loose desperation of someone who either couldn’t figure out how to end their movie or had someone else end it for them.

Why abandon the family connections between the scientific residents? Why let the perverse pleasure of Paul Giamatti’s paycheck-earning convictions supersede everything a sane person knows about a psychologist-patient relationship? Why does Morgan do anything she does? Her blank stares are less justification than empty expectation. Maybe we, the audience, will do the work to plot the course between friendly Morgan and killer Morgan.

There are two completely different movies here, bridged together with ramshackle writing that fails to connect them, and the audience falls through the gap. Even some creative kills aren’t worth the tedium of this film. As its genre sloppily shifts, so does its philosophy and potential. Morgan can’t say anything meaningful about artificial intelligence because it’s too artificial a film.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).