‘Morgan’: Science fiction horror thriller doesn’t hit its mark

What 20th Century Fox thought this film was going to be wasn’t actually the film director Luke Scott created.

"Morgan" under the microscope. (Screen capture, YouTube video version of trailer for the 20th Century Fox film "Morgan."

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2016 – The new 20th Century Fox sci-fi horror thriller “Morgan” probably isn’t going be in your favorite local the theaters very long. During its Labor Day opening weekend, it ranked 7th lowest for movies opening on at least 2000 screens, a fate both unfortunate and obvious. Combined with an equally tepid critical reaction, any potential audience for “Morgan” is going to turn away from this film.

“Morgan” was created under a bargain basement budget of only $8 million. Accordingly, it looks and feels like the kind of horror film that gets churned out, digested, and ultimately forgotten about not long after it’s released.

Trailers leading up to the film made it seem like a pretty standard horror thriller, with an added touch of paranormal on the side. A dark and ominous vibe runs throughout the minute and a half snippet as various characters strive to avoid the human hybrid known as Morgan (Ana Taylor-Joy). Yet we’re not exactly clear on what to expect from the film.

It’s curious that Morgan got as wide release it did, especially in major theaters across the country given its lowball budget. Perhaps the studio had low expectations to begin with, and figured that they’d give it maximum exposure in a maximum number of theaters before word of mouth and the critics had time to finish it off.

Perhaps the real problem, though, is this: What the director—and the studio—ended up with is a speculative science fiction film that is difficult to pin down and is more likely to confuse audiences that come to see it.

“Morgan” is not a movie that’s particularly interested in becoming a thriller or making people jump out of their seats. It’s not focused so much on what it’s anti-heroine Morgan is actually doing but what the very concept of Morgan implies on numerous levels and what that means for the other characters in the film.

It doesn’t help that this film lacks a clear road map from the outset. Yes, keeping the audience a bit confused is likely intentional as it is in many similar films. But the more obscurely the story line functions, the murkier things get, perhaps something that has to do with Luke Scott being a first time director on this project.

“Morgan” begins rather simply. Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a risk assessment specialist working for the company backing the scientific project that has created Morgan, an organically produced artificial intelligence (AI) in human form. As we encounter her, we quickly learn that she is definitively not a robotic creation, almost always the case in AI stories of this type. She seems a virtually human organism, taking on the appearance of a girl in her late teens some five years after she was created/born.

Early in the film, Morgan attacks Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is why Lee was asked to investigate Morgan and the rest of the scientific team, the better to aid in assessing how the company should proceed with this now hard-to-control AI prototype.

Scott and writer Seth Owen quickly define each individual’s take on Morgan, allowing us to explore which notions might be closest to the actual mark. The majority of those already living at the scientific compound have a vested interest in Morgan. But none of them treat her the same way and have varying degrees of belief in her as well as the validity of the project. This is readily perceived by comparing the attitudes of Amy (Rose Leslie) – who abashedly loves Morgan – and Skip (Boyd Holbrook) – who is the only one referring to Morgan as “it.”

Screen capture from trailer for 20th Century Fox horror-thriller "Morgan." (Via YouTube)
Screen capture from trailer for 20th Century Fox horror-thriller “Morgan.” (Via YouTube)

When Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) makes his appearance to evaluate the psychological state of Morgan is when the movie finally jumps into high gear. When he deliberately provokes Morgan, the thriller portion of this movie begins to crank.

From a narrative perspective, Shapiro’s obvious purpose is to provoke Morgan, though it really goes deeper than that. Shapiro doesn’t see Morgan as a person, much less a girl. He analyzes her in a manner of presumptuous and condescending superiority. He presupposes there’s no possibility that Morgan can prove she is anything but artificial. As obnoxiously as it’s presented, this question is the central philosophical point of the film.

“What is perception?” Normally in a movie involving AI, this basic question involves the very concept of humanity itself. That’s why the way everyone perceives Morgan is of the utmost importance in determining the outcome of this movie’s various situations and confrontations.

As opposed to Shapiro, Amy treats Morgan as someone deserving of love. For her part, Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) thinks of her as a special experiment – even though Morgan clearly views her as a mother.

This, in turn, makes Dr. Simon Ziegler’s (Toby Jones’) view of Morgan as something akin to a daughter more tragic given his ultimate fate. Naturally, his view contrasts with that of Dr. Darren Finch (Chris Sullivan), who interacts with Morgan the way someone whose uncomfortable with kids ends up treating them like really smart pets.

All these wildly diverging voices and opinions ultimately affect Morgan’s five year old psyche. Despite her teenage appearance and high intelligence level, her emotional intelligence and comprehension is still that of a virtual five year due to the inconsistent environment in which she’s been raised, a schizoid construct in which her living arrangement seems to alternate between that of a human girl and that of an animal caged in a zoo.

PR Poster for 20th Century Fox film "Morgan."
PR Poster for 20th Century Fox film “Morgan.”

All this plays off against Lee, the outside rep who’s come to investigate the current situation for the company. As the company’s representative, she carefully questions Dr. Cheng to gain some insight on the current situation with Morgan. Lee is aware of a previous AI project in Helsinki where scientists attempted to create an entity similar to Morgan, but encountered disastrous results. When Dr. Cheng asks about Lee’s connection with the company, Lee notes, enigmatically, that she came after Helsinki.

Lee for all intents and purposes is Morgan’s opposite. As the company rep, she’s viewed somewhat suspiciously as an outsider by the rest of the group. Yet she’s treated with a level of humanity that is never afforded to Morgan. Outside of Dr. Cheng, perhaps, no one questions Lee’s humanity. They presume that Lee, despite her outsider status, is one of them, automatically uniting Lee with the rest in opposition to Morgan, who is perceived as the “other.”

All this becomes interesting if we reflect back on an early episode of the film in which Jim Bryce (Brian Cox) – presumably the head of the company – is talking to Lee as she enters the compound. His shadowy role in the film becomes clear by its conclusion. We begin to wonder about Lee and Morgan.

Rather than inhabiting the roles of human interviewer and AI subject, we start to see these two characters as a pair of puzzle pieces the company is most concerned with. Everyone else in the film comes across as either an unwitting pawn or someone who exists only to provoke a reaction out of these two key subject. The important thing is to remember, however, is this: which one of them, Lee or Morgan, is aware she’s a subject.

Luke Scott and Seth Owen might have been too direct in this film in the way they showing the audience where the puppet strings are. Yet this metaphor does get to the heart of this film: it’s all about control. At the center of the story, Morgan realizes just how little control she has over every situation in her life, and finally decides to claim whatever agency she has.

Only at the very end of the film does Lee realizes she’s in a box very similar to Morgan’s, but just less obvious. While Morgan embodies the emotions of a child personified and expanded, Lee struggles with the thought that she might be missing something quite drastically as she stares at her hands in a cold panic.

A film that puts women in positions where the notion of control is at the center has quite a few historical and philosophical antecedents, and will seem at least to some as quite a timely concept for discussion in our own times. It’s unfortunate that Scott and Owen couldn’t have been sharper in their presentation of the issue.

It’s for that reason and others, including the difficulty of placing this film clearly in an identifiable genre, probably guarantees that “Morgan” isn’t going to be discussed much after it fades from local movie theaters. The right material is there, but it doesn’t get the proper explication. Still, dissecting women’s agency within a sci-fi spectrum, remains a tough sell regardless of how poignant—and timely—this film’s ideas may be.

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