Tuesday, September 6, 2016

In Theaters: MORGAN (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Luke Scott. Written by Seth Owen. Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Cox, Michael Yare, Boyd Holbrook, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson. (R, 92 mins)

Luke Scott has served as an assistant and a second-unit director on several films by his legendary and seemingly ageless father Ridley Scott, but MORGAN marks the 48-year-old scion's feature directing debut (Ridley's other filmmaker son, Jake Scott, debuted with 1999's PLUNKETT & MACLEANE). Pops Scott produced the film, and if Luke had any hopes of emerging from the long shadow cast by his visionary father, he's gonna have to try a lot harder than MORGAN. In all fairness, MORGAN looks fine, with some effective set design and a few breathtaking exterior visuals in a surrounding forest and on a lake (this was shot in Ireland), but the script by Seth Owen (rumored to be overhauled and rewritten by the director) is so derivative and obvious that any seasoned moviegoer will figure out where this thing is headed by the ten-minute mark. At a secret research facility in remote upstate New York, scientists have succeeded in creating, after two failed attempts, a flesh-and-blood, A.I. humanoid named Morgan (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy), who's five years old but whose accelerated growth rate gives it the appearance of a girl in her late teens. Cold and standoffish Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a risk assessment agent sent in by the project's corporate benefactors to determine Morgan's viability after it attacks one of the scientists, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), gouging out her eye in a fit of rage when it's informed it disobeyed the rules and can't go outside anymore. Lee is naturally met with apprehension and scorn by the rest of the research team--Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), Dr. Ted Brenner (Michael Yare), married Drs. Darren and Brenda Finch (Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson), and the head of the project, Dr. Liu Cheng (Michelle Yeoh)--with her only real ally coming from the facility's nutritionist/cook/potential love interest Skip (Boyd Holbrook).

Why these people can't prepare their own meals and require Skip to be on the payroll in a sworn-to-secrecy, middle-of-nowhere location for a minimum of five years is the least of the questions you'll have after watching MORGAN. As Morgan demonstrates more human qualities and has tangible feelings of joy and sorrow (it loves the outdoors and opera, and is set off when it's punished for wandering off the property while out on a walk with Amy), they've grown attached to it and refer to it as "she" and "her," which doesn't fly with the no-nonsense Lee. With her aloof, bottom-line attitude, Lee's character arc is pretty easy to pick up on thanks to Scott's inability to grasp the concept of subtlety. There's a big EX MACHINA influence on MORGAN, but it also works in a significant plot point of Dad Scott's first or second-most famous film in such a ham-fisted way that the biggest mystery isn't what the twist is, but how long it's going to take the rest of the dim characters to figure out what you already know. With her saucer-like eyes and the large pupil contacts she wears in some scenes, Taylor-Joy evokes memories of Delphine Chaneac's more monstrous Dren in Vincenzo Natali's 2010 film SPLICE, which took things in a decidedly more Cronenberg-ian slant, but whose transgressive perversions are hinted at here and dropped almost instantly. Indeed, there's something strongly suggested in outsider Amy's feelings for Morgan--feelings that don't seem to be maternal or sisterly. There's a throwaway line by Skip about how he briefly hooked up with Amy years ago before realizing "I'm not her type." There's enough in Leslie's performance here to suggest that Amy has other designs on Morgan but nothing comes of it (those who've seen SPLICE will recall that, yes, it went there).

There's good performances in MORGAN in the early-going, before it turns into a rote body count movie when Morgan escapes from the lab and starts killing everyone off one by one. Taylor-Joy does a solid job of balancing childlike innocence with palpable rage, but Alicia Vikander did it much better and with more complexity and ambiguity in EX MACHINA. Still, Morgan shows more emotion than Mara's Lee, whose brittle chilliness is oversold with a stick-up-her-ass demeanor and an "I'd like to speak to a manager" hairstyle that exemplifies MORGAN's rush to show its cards too soon. The veteran actors in the cast are underutilized: Leigh pretty much lies in a bed with gauze over her eye, catatonic with painkillers in one of the most inactive-by-design performances this side of Eric Stoltz in ANACONDA; Yeoh's Dr. Cheng drifts in and out of the story in ways that suggest Scott only had the actress for a very limited time (why is she not there for the big assessment of Morgan?); Brian Cox almost literally phones in his entire performance as the CEO of the company bankrolling the Morgan project; and Paul Giamatti has one ten-minute scene, breaking out every move in his "Paul Giamatti" arsenal as Dr. Shapiro, the psychologist brought in to interview Morgan. Giamatti's character is a man so bellicose and arrogant that the actor has barely finished emitting his first dismissive sneer before you conclude that he's not making out of the room alive. The fact that Shapiro's there because Morgan has attacked Kathy and his plan is to sit with it at the same table and agitate it to evaluate its temper--essentially poking Morgan with a stick until it attacks--tells you how smart this film and its characters are. MORGAN looks like what might've happened if EX MACHINA was made at a major studio and the suits let the test audiences and the focus groups dictate the outcome. It's never dull but it's doomed to be a forgotten afterthought as soon as its over, its primary influences thuddingly apparent to any knowledgeable cineaste with even a passing interest in genre fare. They've seen things the makers of MORGAN wouldn't believe. All those ripoffs will be lost online, like streams on demand.

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