Morgan is only four days old and already it has gained a reputation as one of the biggest flops of all time, grossing just under $3 million in a wide release. Add to that some dire reviews (44% on Rotten Tomatoes) and I knew I just had to see it. The trailers looked promising, and I thought how could a movie with such a talented cast (Kate Mara, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, and impressive newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) and a promising director (Ridley Scott’s son, Luke Scott) go so badly wrong. The answer, somewhat to my surprise, is not that badly wrong at all. As far as pulpy sci-fi yarns go Morgan ticks all the boxes in record time and doesn’t try to achieve any goals loftier than entertainment. From reading the negative reviews, it sounds like people just wanted this to be a different movie. Well, this is the one we got, and it’s really not bad. I quite enjoyed it, even the eye rolling moments of disbelief. 2016 has been a fantastic year for efficient exploitation movies that don’t outstay their welcome on screens, and Morgan is yet another 90 minute wonder in a sea of three hour tentpole releases.
Kate Mara stars as Lee Weathers, a risk analyst sent to evaluate the titular AI (Taylor-Joy) after she attacks one of her caregivers (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The team of scientists (Jones, Yeoh, and Leigh among them) are immediately wary of Lee’s intentions, and rightfully so. The first half of the film takes its time developing ideas and characters that it doesn’t necessarily follow through on, which is a criticism I understand. There are some intriguing ideas broached that don’t amount to anything more than a passing remark, but when you consider most of these ideas were explored very recently in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina it doesn’t really sting that we don’t get the bobo version of those philosophies. Morgan knows it’s a B-movie, and it spends the third act wallowing in a great deal of very silly and very entertaining situations. This feels like two films rolled into one, albeit cut from the same fabric, and I mean that in the best way possible. We get a creepy slow burn thriller to start, and then improbably we are given a gleefully gory slasher hybrid in the final sections. Again, I do see why this doesn’t work and I believe after hearing the wide spread derision I was primed for something disappointing and that mindset often results in pleasant surprise. However, I know a bad movie when I see one and Morgan is not one. Disjointed as it may be, it’s always fun to watch and at the end of the day that’s what I wanted to see.
The film does give the impression of being edited once, and then edited for a second time in a Cuisinart. As much as I appreciated the swift running time it doesn’t feel natural to a film like this. An extra twenty minutes would have slowed the film down perilously, but there does seem to be a large gap in plot between the second and third act. You can’t fault a film for just wanting to get to the good stuff, though. In the opening part each cast member is given at least one big scene to themselves, and no one is phoning it in. Jennifer Jason Leigh is always fantastic, as is Toby Jones. Michelle Yeoh isn’t given quite enough to do but does make the most of what time she is given. Her character ends up, I think accidentally, being the emotional center of the film. Too much time is lavished on day players rounding out the rest of the lab, most egregiously Boyd Holbrook’s chef character who adds nothing of much value to the proceedings and does literally just stand around asking everyone what’s going on. Kate Mara is particularly impressive, and though I couldn’t help thinking her role might have been better suited to the ice queen prowess of her sister Rooney, she does make for an impressive bad ass.
The biggest problem the film possesses is buying into the blood splattered, action heavy climax. The shift does feel abrupt as opposed to shocking, and unfortunately Morgan becomes one of those movies where characters whose only defining trait is “smart scientist” start doing improbably dumb things. Once Morgan has gouged eyes and ripped throats with her bare teeth it’s a mystery why every single scientist in the lab can’t just kill her. The answer to that mystery might just be that you can’t make a 45 minute long movie with an anticlimax, but the movie attempts to posit that Morgan is the child of these lonely scientists and so they…ignore her obviously murderous tendencies and try to escape with her? Even after she kills multiple members of her “family”? Okay, have it your way. The film also employs the most used line in confined space horror movies, with one minor character announcing just before her demise, “We’re leaving this house!” Here’s a hint: If you say that in a movie – any movie – chances are you will not be leaving that house.
Yet somehow Scott overcomes these insane lapses of script writing judgement and turns the audience around back on the side of the film. Or, I should say he turned me around. Morgan then becomes so gleefully camp that I couldn’t help but sort of have a ball with it. By the time Morgan leads Lee on a car chase (truly) into the woods and they have their climactic karate fight (swear to God) I was thinking this might be film of the year (joking, though believable given my dubious taste.) The twist at the end made me actually say aloud, “Oh for fuck’s sake!” and if you can’t see that reveal coming from the very first scene, well, congratulations on seeing your first movie ever. The “everyone dies” ending might not work for a lot of people, and even I think it’s a bit of a cheap way to resolve your story, but I’m at odds with my affinity for gonzo gore pics and my equal affinity for good writing. The difference with Morgan is that you can see the talent on display. This is a very well put together movie, and for just $6 million it looks spectacular. I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend a good part of the movie wondering how much each actor got paid, and how much that left for the film itself. Morgan never looked like it would be high art, and it isn’t. It’s a very modern updating of the old dark house formula, modulated with an exceptionally brutal dose of slasher movie mayhem and some moments of well-staged action. It’s inexplicable flop is a shame, because I believe it means people won’t even give this a chance. I had to rush out to see this after most theaters near me (in a pretty big city) cut the screenings down to twice a day after the poor weekend it had. If it does get reevaluated in years to come, I think people will appreciate it for what it is. That being, a very well made, exceptionally efficient psycho-on-a-rampage movie with an unexpectedly lofty hook.
* * *
Directed by Luke Scott
Written by Seth W. Owen
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, with Brian Cox and Paul Giamatti.
Rated R for brutal violence and some language