“Morgan’s not a she, it’s an it,” Kate Mara asserts early of this film’s namesake entity, a synthetic being in a hoodie that’s capable of both deep affection and random bursts of violence. A risk management consultant, Mara’s Lee Weathers has arrived at a remote scientific base in what looks like the Northwest wilderness to determine whether Morgan should be allowed to flourish or put to sleep. While the staff, led by Toby Jones’ Dr. Simon Ziegler and Michelle Yeoh’s Dr. Lui Cheng, can’t help but have developed familial feelings with Morgan, Lee is there to remind them that Morgan is nothing more than an artificiality, designed to execute tasks, not form bonds. It’s classic sci-fi, and evidence that themes of humanizing artificial intelligence will never get old.
There’s something nostalgic about Morgan, not in its technology or direction, both of which are aggressively modern, but in its structure. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were oodles of mid-budget ensemble sci-fi flicks about scientists who discover the dangers of playing God; none of them were particularly good (Hollow Man, anyone?), but they essentially functioned as high-minded slashers that weren’t afraid to dabble in lofty themes. Morgan works because it isn’t afraid to indulge in a little pulp, even as it expends a great deal of energy attempting to humanize its central entity.
It does a nice job, too. Anya Taylor-Joy, so haunting in The Witch earlier this year, plays Morgan as deft and cautious, a being capable of great feats of intelligence and combat but adrift when it comes to understanding emotions. Nowhere is this more clear than in a tense tête-à-tête with psychologist Dr. Alan Shapiro (a snarling Paul Giamatti) that results in displays of emotional violence that eclipse any of the physical bloodshed that follows.
In this way and more, director Luke Scott, son of Ridley, is able to blend thoughtful insight and big-screen entertainment value in much the same way as his father. Morgan is complex and emotional, but also packed with crowd-pleasing jolts of humor and fight scenes that, while occasionally dizzying—Scott needs a better grasp on that camera—are satisfyingly thrilling. Mara’s wardrobe is another fine example of this artful juxtaposition, with her sleek, impeccably tailored outfits adding a dash of semi-futuristic malevolence to the film’s otherwise rustic environs.
What really stands out in Morgan, however, is the screenplay. It isn’t perfect—its central pivot feels a bit strained, and Rose Leslie’s seemingly essential behaviorist, Dr. Amy Menser, feels deeply underdeveloped alongside Mara and Taylor-Joy. Still, it’s obvious why Seth W. Owen’s script was on the 2014 Black List of Best Unproduced Screenplays. Morgan’s language is urgent and empathetic, and its characters more often than not brimming with life and detail. Even a supporting character like Boyd Holbrook’s Chef Skip is given a lovely monologue about risotto, of all things, that not only sketches out his character but draws out striking thematic nuances.
Morgan isn’t hard sci-fi. It isn’t trying to solve the questions that have suffused the genre since its inception. Rather, it couches those ever-more-timely concerns in scenes of high action and affecting character connection. The film’s final coda, for example, is satisfying from both a pulp standpoint and a thematic one. And what we’re left with is a film that’s neither big-budget Hollywood blockbuster nor lo-fi indie; rather, it’s the kind of low-stakes genre affair that’s all but been diminished in the modern studio system. Here’s hoping Morgan has a hand in changing that.