Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti
Director: Luke Scott
Production/Distributor: Scott Free Productions/20th Century Fox
Opens: September 2, 2016
The Frankenstein story grows ever more understandable as bio-engineering has further progressed into our world. Even as science offers human improvement and cures for diseases, we’ve become troubled on some level with the concept of tinkering with the foundational elements of life. Jurassic Park is, in that regard, essentially the Frankenstein of the late 20th century with its modernized look at reanimating the dead and the failure of human beings to understand the consequences of doing so.
Morgan takes Jurassic Park‘s notions of biological tinkering a step back towards its inspiration, though with a 21st century spin. The titular character (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, on the surface, a troubled teenage girl: angsty, confined, and hidden beneath a gray hoodie. On the audience’s first encounter with her, she stabs a maternal figure in the eye after being told she can’t go outside the nondescript cell in which she lives. As the story peels back, we learn that “Morgan” is some kind of undefined science project, artificially grown and rapidly aged, raised by a team of scientists who keep her housed in an isolated deciduous region.
In fact, as the story progresses, “Morgan” seems less human and more alien (although to be clear, no, she’s no extraterrestrial). As a bioengineered project, she never seems quite human, and Taylor-Joy’s character is presented as pale, wide-eyed, and socially awkward, doing her best to behave as a human being is expected…barring incidents where she violently lashes out. A flashback sequence shows a physically younger Morgan efficiently killing a wounded deer in front of one of her advocates (Rose Leslie), raising the troubling question of how much of the girl is an affectionate child and how much of her is a monster.
The tension in the movie comes down to whether Morgan is a “she” or an “it.” The latter is the insistent position of Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a troubleshooter sent from the corporation that’s sponsoring Morgan’s creation. Weathers takes a cold, clinical look at Morgan as a product and a commodity to the people that are paying for her, and one that can be terminated if she isn’t meeting those standards. (Mara plays this part well as the ruthless corporate hired gun who, intentionally, limits her personality to the surface but is organizationally loyal to the core.) It’s the Weathers character that lets the audience guiltily delve into the bioethics issues raised by the film: if you create and commodify a human being, is it still human? And does it matter if you forcefully label her as non-human?
Morgan doesn’t present any comfortable answers to these questions. The viewer will easily sympathize with the scientists who’ve raised Morgan for five years and have extreme difficulty in applying an “it” label to a girl who they’ve given stuffed animals and taken on nature walks. (A surprising performance comes out of Toby Jones, who pop culture fans will recognize as Arnim Zola from the Captain America films. In those, he’s a dispassionate Nazi scientist with no qualms about human experimentation; here, he’s quite overcome with guilt.) And yet, in Jurassic Park‘s “life finds a way” approach, there’s an element of Morgan that’s dangerously lurking below the surface–a tension which comes to a head during an emotional meeting with a corporate psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) sent to determine exactly what Morgan is.
Morgan‘s big flaw is that it takes awhile to get to the point, and until it does, it feels like rote filmmaking about bioengineering gone wrong. Whatever Morgan is, exactly, is left ill-defined for much of the movie, and she actually turns out to be far less than what we’ve come to expect these days. There is a purpose to her creation, though she’s far less than some kind of superhero or alien-human hybrid. Prior to the explanation, though: of course Morgan appears sweet, and of course she turns out to be a dangerous killer, and of course her handlers have to figure out if she’s too dangerous to live. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, aside from the obvious Jurassic Park and endless Frankenstein remakes and Species and any number of other biotech movies.
The problem is that the movie has an impressive twist ending which, if audiences take away anything from the movie, will be the final surprise. We’ll keep this spoiler-free, but let’s just say that it’s one of those final surprises which merits a second viewing of the film so that everything can be re-examined in light of that new information. The trouble is that director Luke Scott, still a relative newcomer to filmmaking, didn’t quite figure out how to make the movie unique prior to the conclusion. The thing about a “twist ending” movie is that it needs to be compelling on a first viewing so that a viewer can appreciate the drama and psychology of the story both before and after the curtain is lifted. Stories like The Sixth Sense or Psycho accomplished this well. Morgan struggles to find what makes it unique from all the other Frankenstein derivatives in the history of cinema before that revelation happens.
Until the climax, it’s not a bad introduction to the bio-horror-thinkpiece, but it’s been done better in other films and could have used some padded dialogue reflecting on what the science team was doing. To Morgan‘s credit, the twist ending will give audiences something to chew on about manufactured humans and whether they’re a “she” or an “it,” and if so, what that means in terms of the nature and purpose of a human being. Morgan isn’t the must-see science-gone-wrong film of the year, but it may be worth a matinée view for the casual filmgoer.
Rating: Three stabbings out of five.
Morgan opens September 2, 2016.