What is Morgan? A Decent Science Fiction Thriller

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of science fiction movies: there are the “big idea” dramas, like 2001 and Ex Machina; and there’s the pulp sci-fi, usually some kind of horror or action movie like Event Horizon or Star Wars. Morgan, the debut feature of Luke Scott, son of the great Ridley Scott, falls somewhere in the middle of these two options. It’s a movie with some big ideas embedded in its concept, but it ultimately elects to leave them hovering in the background to focus on suspense and action. The result is that Morgan is a competent but unambitious thriller that would ultimately be pretty forgettable if not for the strength of its cast and the ideas that are present, if you chose to think about them.

The titular character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a genetically engineered entity, designed to mature faster than humans and with enhanced physical and cognitive abilities. After an altercation with one of the scientists who created Morgan, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a risk management operative for the corporation that owns Morgan, comes to the lab to determine whether or not Morgan needs to be euthanized.

The lab is populated by an ensemble cast that includes Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Toby Jones, and Michelle Yeoh. The characters are all sketched pretty thinly on the page, but these are all very talented actors, and they imbue their characters with enough personality that they become interesting to watch.

Mara in particular gives a very carefully tuned performance. There’s often a tendency for female characters like Lee to be written and played as buttoned-up ice queens. Lee’s position requires her to be dispassionate, but Mara makes sure to throw in just enough wry humor or warmth to remind both the other characters and the audience that there’s an emotionally complex person under the professional exterior.

The real standout in Morgan is Anya Taylor-Joy. Coming off of a solid performance in The Witch earlier this year, Taylor-Joy marks herself as a talent to watch with her second big screen role. Only five years old, Morgan already has the body of a young adult. Her emotional development isn’t nearly complete and she has abilities that humans don’t and that she still doesn’t fully grasp. All of which serves to make Morgan an emotional powder keg, and Taylor-Joy nails the complexity that comes with it.

There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Paul Giamatti enters the lab as a doctor giving Morgan a psych evaluation. Giamatti’s character is aggressive, pushing Morgan very bluntly to try and see how well she can control her emotions. The scene requires Taylor-Joy to bounce between vastly different emotions, often from one thought to the next. It must have been very challenging, but Taylor-Joy pulled it off with seeming ease. There’s a sense of vulnerability to Morgan, both in that scene and throughout the movie, that keeps you sympathizing with her even when she does things that aren’t very nice.

That psych eval is the best scene of the movie, not just because of the performances of Taylor-Joy and Giamatti, but also because it’s really the one scene where the deeper ideas at play in Morgan get dug into in a concrete way. Morgan isn’t a human being—she’s not even really a she. Morgan’s existence raises questions about the essential nature of humanity and what rights a genetically engineered humanoid entity has. These are questions that I personally find very fascinating, so I was hoping that more of the movie would be devoted to exploring them.

Unfortunately, after that scene Morgan takes a turn toward the mundane, shelving the high-concept ideas in favor of a much more generic action-thriller mode. Morgan and Lee enter a cat-and-mouse game full of punching and shooting and car chasing. Luke Scott shoots it all confidently (Morgan doesn’t feel like a freshman movie effort) and it never failed to hold my attention, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before, and it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the performance work that made the first half of the movie interesting.

There’s also a twist, which I won’t spoil, but which I felt was telegraphed pretty obviously by a moment of fairly ham-fisted dialogue from writer Seth Owen. I also don’t think it adds anything significant to the plot or themes of the movie. It’s really only there to give the audience an “aha!” moment right at the end of the movie, so hopefully I’m in the minority of people who see it coming from a mile away.

While Morgan didn’t end up being exactly the movie I was hoping for, there’s still plenty there to recommend. In a summer populated by a lot of big, dumb, loud movies, it’s nice to watch something with the modest ambitions and quiet confidence of Morgan. And with the door left open for a sequel, if enough people check Morgan out we could see at least one more movie like it.

Morgan opens nationwide this Friday, September 2nd.

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