Horror-Thriller "Morgan" Makes Poor Use Of Great Cast

When Jurassic Park author and “Westworld” writer-director Michael Crichton succumbed to cancer in 2008, he left an entire genre of literature and film (the techno-thriller) to be tended to. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov birthed hard (detail-oriented) science fiction, but it was Crichton who so effectually married it to action storytelling. Few have done it better since, with many struggling still to approximate the late writer’s ability to concurrently thrill and edify.

Artificial intelligence horror-thriller “Morgan” is a shining example of how not to ape Crichton’s brand of futurism, picking his work over for parts without any appreciation for how or why they were assembled in the first place. Never mind that last year’s “Ex Machina” spun a curiously similar web and did it much more inventively.

Luke Scott – son of Sir Ridley (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”) – directs from a screenplay by Seth W. Owen. Owen’s script is stillborn, a dull hodgepodge of uninteresting characters delivering uninteresting dialogue in a wooded bunker that looks amazingly like that of the aforementioned “Ex Machina.” And Scott’s direction is as short on personality as the characters inhabiting his movie.

A corporate risk assessment agent named Lee Weathers (Kate Mara, “The Martian”) has been dispatched to investigate a violent incident involving a synthetic human named Morgan. Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) plays the title character, a 5-year-old humanoid with the appearance and demeanor of an especially icy teenage girl. After Morgan stabs one of her caretakers in the eye, the rest of the team is surprisingly cool about the whole thing, incredulous at the thought that Weathers might want her terminated.

The film’s impressive stable of supporting actors (Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and Jennifer Jason Leigh) looks to elevate the B-movie dialogue – “There was joy in [Morgan’s] heart before we shoved her back in that box!” – but their pedigree makes for an awkward dance between would-be prestige sci-fi and uncreative schlock. This same imbalance is felt in the film’s halfway point turn from PG-13 thriller to grisly horror. Thereafter, “Morgan” is a futuristic “Friday The 13th” movie waiting for Jason Voorhees to show up. Spoiler: he doesn’t.

As for the leads, Mara’s presence is a typically bland one. But since her character comes with no backstory or personality to speak of, the blame isn’t hers to shoulder. Alternatively, Taylor-Joy is a relative bright spot, imbuing a stone-faced killer humanoid with a modicum of charisma. But not enough that we feel like rooting for her. And that’s the movie’s eventual downfall. We don’t care about any of these characters, not even enough to cheer as they’re killed off.

Ultimately, “Morgan” thinks itself a cautionary, profound tale of human arrogance that also dishes out bloody thrills. Meanwhile, in reality, it’s a base, sleepy exercise in horror that doesn’t deserve its cast or an audience. These are poorly realized characters stuck in a labyrinth of illogic, which is antithetical to everything Michael Crichton proved the genre could stand for. Leave it to the film’s shoulder shrug of a twist to sum up its failures so plainly.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 2, 2016
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Luke Scott
Screenwriters: Seth W. Owen
Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox
MPAA Rating: R (for brutal violence, and some language)