It’s rare to be able to pinpoint the exact moment when a movie goes wrong, but it’s possible to do so with Morgan, the new sci-fi horror film from director Luke Scott (the son of Ridley).
For roughly its first two-thirds, Morgan is a deeply intriguing movie with one question at its center: Did Morgan, an artificial life form played by Anya Taylor-Joy (whom you may remember as the protagonist of The Witch), harm one of the scientists caring for her because she’s been constructed incorrectly and is, thus, inherently violent? Or did she harm the scientist because she suffered a glitch?
Yes, this premise is pretty similar to that of the terrific 2015 robot drama Ex Machina — also about an attempt to determine just how "human" an artificial human really was — but Morgan offers a family dynamic among Morgan and the many scientists caring for her that Ex Machina didn’t have. In essence, the film asks, is it okay for the corporation that technically owns Morgan to kill someone these people think of as family, even if she’s dangerous to them?
That’s a fun little sci-fi puzzle, as these things go. You can imagine the potential Twilight Zone episode that might have resulted — right down to the twist that also ends the film (which I’m going to spoil below, so be forewarned). But pulling off such a story requires a certain degree of thoughtfulness, and whatever thoughtfulness Morgan starts out with disappears as the film enters its final half-hour.
And now let the spoilers begin.
Morgan’s best scene also marks its point of no return
Around Morgan’s halfway point, a major new character enters the story. As the psychologist tasked with evaluating Morgan’s mental workings, Paul Giamatti is at his rumpled best, irritated with the thought that he’s been brought all the way out to a farm in the middle of nowhere to talk to a robot.
But his opinion of Morgan will be key. If he says she’s fine, she’ll be allowed to live. If he deems her a threat, the scientists will be forced to put her to sleep. (A corporate hired gun, played by Kate Mara, is on site to make sure they do what they’re told.)
Giamatti only appears in this one sequence, but it’s an impressive one. He begins talking to Morgan like he wants to be her friend, then slowly turns up the heat, until he’s all but daring her to hurt him, just as she hurt the other scientist. And in the end, she does, ultimately leading to the decision to terminate her. It doesn’t go all that well — Morgan becomes a horror movie villain and starts killing everyone, while Mara tries to kill Morgan instead.
The problem is that until this point, the film has been toying with ideas about whether Morgan is an actual sentient being, whether she deserves the same sort of rights that a human being might have — which would not include having essentially no autonomy and/or being the property of a corporation.
However, it largely tosses those aside in favor of the "everybody dies" ending. It briefly suggests that Morgan was baited by the psychologist, that she realized she was an entirely separate species and, necessarily, must be at war with her creators. But it invests too little effort in exploring this idea, instead favoring random bursts of violence and splatter.
This is too bad, because the movie’s early going is frequently intriguing. And it’s filmed beautifully by Scott, who’s particularly fond of shots featuring the overlapping reflections of various characters as they talk to each other through glass barriers, an effect that allows for both eerie and surprisingly erotic moments.
But the pivot into full horror ultimately undercuts everything else Morgan was going for. Morgan ceases to be an intriguing philosophical quandary when she’s actively working to kill every human she meets.
The film’s twist ending (which reveals that Mara is also a robot — something you could see coming after reading the film’s premise) tries to raise further issues of artificial intelligence and whether humanity might invent a successor that would cause humanity’s extinction. But it’s all too little, too late.
Morgan starts out as an intriguing puzzle for the mind, but it ends up as a generic haunted house tale. At least Ex Machina built to a similarly horrifying conclusion much more organically — and in a way that acknowledged the moral complexity of the situation. Morgan mostly offers a blood-spattered shrug.