On faulty points of view, emotional attachments, and the budding greatness of Anya Taylor-Joy
Morgan 20th Century Fox
Director: Luke Scott
Screenplay: Seth W. Owen
Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Vinette Robinson and Paul Giamatti
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.35:1
September 2, 2016
(out of four)
Morgan, a sci-fi picture about a volatile artificial intelligence, has a point-of-view problem. It purposefully brings us in from the outside, giving us a stranger's introduction to the lab-created, sad-eyed young woman standing behind the reinforced glass. On the other side of the glass is the team of scientists and researchers that created Morgan, taught her, observed her, got to know her. Alongside them is our proxy, a risk-assessment specialist named Lee (Kate Mara), who's been brought in to make a determination about this artificial creation's future.
But the choice to use an outsider's perspective is, in this case, a double-edged sword. It allows Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) to register first and foremost as an enigma - one whose angelic appearance and tone of voice are a direct contradiction to the recent violent episodes that necessitated Lee's investigation in the first place. That ambiguity proves inviting for a film explicitly about the act of observation, with director Luke Scott's framing persistently placing his characters in positions of watch, one (if not all) questioning the nature of the other(s). Whether they're separated by a glass partition, or the long stretch of an interrogation table, or even sharing more intimate space in a moment that may or may not be leaning toward sexual tension, the characters in the movie are in a perpetual feeling-out process. For Lee, her job is to dig beneath the dueling dispositions Morgan seems to possess - filter out the first impressions and the false impressions - and ultimately make a judgment call about the project. A "project” that everyone else has come to see as a member of the family.
Which is where the point-of-view problem comes in. There's a pseudo-mystery in play that's a direct result of the outside perspective we're given, but the film's ultimate conflict is dependent on us understanding everything from an insider level. The issue is this: Morgan has started to kill people, or very nearly kill them. That part is not a secret. We even see her first attack, against one of the research team's own (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), in the opening scene before Lee arrives. What's unknown is the why. Was it a reaction to her captivity? A glitch in her programming? An unexpected primal instinct? A growing pain stemming from not understanding the do's and don'ts of human (and/or faux-human) behavior? That's what Lee has to find out, examining her actions and spending time with Morgan. We observe in a way not unlike the moral crisis we see in a more standard criminal investigation or real-life trial, where we judge the undeniability of what a person has done against the believability of their apparent remorse and understanding. Did Morgan simply not understand her actions or has she just mastered the art of manipulation?
The real obstacle is not Morgan herself but the staff's attachment to her/it. Regardless of what she did, they want to keep her around - keep studying her, keep teaching her, fix those more violent impulses if they can. They're quite sure they can. But mostly it's an emotional attachment - an emotional attachment that we can only possibly understand in the abstract, since we're at so far a remove from the day-to-day experience they all have of living and working with her for as long as they have.
The fact is, unless there is a fix for Morgan, of course she needs to be put down. She's going around killing people. Here is where a more internal point-of-view would have come in handy. At least then, we could feel that painful internal contradiction, where what you want to happen is different from what you logically know should happen, and you opt for the former anyway. Our emotions lead us astray, and it's understandable that they do so. But Morgan never gives us that understanding, so the ethical conflict - between Lee and the team - comes across as almost wholly manufactured, if not downright stupid. The staff - among them Dr. Zielger (Toby Jones), Dr. Menser (Rose Leslie), and Drs. Finch (Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson) - take a sort of Merkin Muffley approach to the investigation. "What happened is, Morgan, she ... well she went a little funny in the head ... she went and did a silly thing ..."
A fuller timeline and a point-of-view shift may have made all the difference. As it is, the point-of-view that offers up such potential early on ends up working against the movie. Morgan's entire history - from a synthetic embryo to a full-grown woman in about six months' time - is glanced over, and her kinship with Dr. Menser is the only personal relationship we get to see and know. Everything else, from everyone else, is lip service.
In his feature debut, Scott (Ridley Scott's son) tackles tricky material, but with so much less introspection than it demands. Nature of the beast, perhaps, that it gets reduced to fights and chases in a way that renders the more intellectual concerns almost obsolete. There's one wrinkle in particular that manages to simultaneously complicate one character and de-complicate another, somehow making them both less interesting as a result. And the more action-oriented Morgan gets, the clearer it becomes that Scott inherited none of his father's action filmmaking skills. We get clumsily tight compositions and chopped-together sequences that ought to make choreographers cringe.
What the film has going for it most of all is Anya Taylor-Joy, star of this year's The Witch, proving here once again that she is the real thing. Morgan is less a character than a situation, so the role is almost entirely reliant on what she can get across. Turns out, quite a bit. As the film strains and collapses around her, Taylor-Joy remains a captivating enigma, the looks in her eyes promising so much more than the movie is willing to give her.