It seems to be a trend in mainstream cinema that lightning occasionally doesn’t strike just once, but twice. Every so often, two films come out within a year of one another based around a similar premise - two films about volcanoes, two films about comets hitting the earth, two films about talking ants, two films about Truman Capote... At a glance, this appears to be the situation with ‘Morgan’, the debut feature from director Luke Scott, son of Ridley Scott. Dealing with the relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence in an isolated, intimate setting, it’s impossible not to think of it in comparison to Alex Garland’s Oscar-winning ‘Ex Machina’, one of the most acclaimed films of 2015. But is this new film an unintentional retread of similar ground, or a machine of entirely its own making?
Lee Weathers (Kate Mara, 'The Martian', 'Fantastic Four'), a risk-management consultant, is sent to assess the results of an experiment merging human organics and AI when the subject in question, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, 'The Witch'), begins to show erratic and violent behaviour. Hidden up in the mountains, a community of scientists passionately protect and study Morgan, seeing her as a living thing rather than the asset Lee sees her as. This division takes a dangerous turn when Morgan sees a chance to use it to her advantage, and get what she desperately wants - freedom.
Even from that description alone, ‘Morgan’ sounds uncomfortably similar to ‘Ex Machina’, but while the film does suffer from inevitable comparison, it turns out to be an interesting film in its own right. While Garland’s film was more menacing and philosophical, Scott’s is more of a traditional thriller, executed with great confidence. Seth W. Owen’s screenplay is direct, economical and playful, taking the time to develop the relationships in the first act before jumping into the narrative twists and turns. ‘Morgan’ has many pleasant surprises, but ultimately it’s very straightforward, the kind of tech-based thrillers that popped up a lot in the 90s. The cinematography is slick and clever (peppered with clues for the big twist climax), the editing is sharp and the rhythms of the film carefully calibrate the tension. This is a machine built for thrills and entertainment with some musings on "what is human?" thrown in to add some flavour. Ultimately, it doesn’t offer very much to say on this, and the revelations in the climax make those questions moot, but Scott has wisely not overextended himself with his debut feature and the film is all the better for it, showing off his skills and perfecting the basics.
This is a machine built for thrills and entertainment with some musings on "what is human?" thrown in to add some flavour.
Much of the film rests on its ensemble, and Scott has gathered a surprisingly great one. Kate Mara further perfects her ability to play both disconnected and hypnotic, with Lee often the most fascinating character in the film and Mara's the most arresting performance. She’s cold and in charge of her emotions, a contrast to Morgan, young and impulsive. Anya Taylor-Joy is a great choice for Morgan, and is able to handle the turns in the character beautifully. She possesses an other-worldly quality, but not to the point of being distracting. They’re joined by Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Rose Leslie, Vinette Robinson, Michael Yare and Chris Sullivan, all of whom deliver great performances and work beautifully together. There are also unexpected and maniacal appearances by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Giamatti, whose scene with Taylor-Joy is the highlight of the film.
Ultimately, it’s difficult not to hold ‘Morgan’ up against ‘Ex Machina’, so numerous are its similarities. However, ‘Morgan’ is still has a lot going for it – it’s thrilling, entertaining, moves at a cracking pace and is bolstered by crisp direction and great performances. Still, it doesn’t leave any lasting impression and ends up being a mostly disposable piece of entertainment, but that isn’t ultimately a bad thing. Luke Scott has made a really solid, genuinely entertaining feature debut, and shown skills that he’ll hopefully have a chance to build on in the future. It’s just a pity this one was pipped at the post before it had even left the gate.