Luke Scott is definitely his father’s son, and when your father is Ridley Scott, that means that if you become a filmmaker, it is inevitable that you will be compared. Ridley Scott is one of the finest directors and visual stylists in Hollywood, and has made many iconic films over the years. Morgan is Luke Scott’s debut as a feature film director, having worked second unit on several of his father’s films. One hopes that with Morgan, Luke Scott has gotten his influences out of his system, because as it stands, Morgan is very derivative of not only his father’s work, but of a lot of modern action cinema in general.
There are fight sequences in Morgan, for example, that are symptomatic of the larger problems with a lot of blockbuster cinema these days – the fights are damn near incoherent and cut with the quick pace of someone doing lines of cocaine off the Avid editing machine. There is a gloss and a sheen to the cinematography that is visually dull and yet very derived from many big-budget films today. There isn’t any kind of look to Morgan – the film looks constantly overcast and gray, and with very little distinctiveness.
Luke Scott has been graced with some excellent actors for his debut, but they are also saddled with a script that never met a cliché it didn’t fully embrace. Not only does Morgan echo films like Ex Machina and Lucy, but much of Ridley Scott’s older science fiction work as well. The unnamed company in the film may as well be called Weyland-Yutani or the Tyrell Corporation, because many of the themes and ideas of Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner make their way into the subtext so plainly they may as well be called text.
Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent by her company to assess a situation at one of their labs; what appears to be either an A.I. or a genetically-created life form named Morgan (Anna Taylor-Joy) has brutally attacked one of the staff in the secluded lab. It becomes apparent to Lee that there is something wrong with Morgan, and that she is deviating from her programming. Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), and Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh, always a pleasure to see on screen) have formed a bond with Morgan, but Morgan is also behaving erratically. When psychologist Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) questions Morgan (this film’s version of Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test), Morgan explodes into violence, putting everyone at the test site in jeopardy.
Morgan could almost be a Blade Runner prequel with the many ideas and subjects that Luke Scott’s film, based on Seth Owen’s script, explores. But he is also guilty of blatant telegraphing of those ideas. Let’s just say that I’m pretty certain which side of the “Is Deckard a Replicant or not?” question that Luke Scott falls on. Scott has been given a healthy budget, some good actors, and studio backing, but what Morgan turns into feels like a pale shadow of his father’s work. The best moments of Morgan are when Scott breaks from that template, such as the supporting cast’s work, especially the work of Toby Jones and Rose Leslie, who give the film a much needed sense of ambiguity. We are not quite sure where their loyalties lie, and both actors walk that fine line with their work. Seth Owen’s script has plot points and twists that can be seen for miles off, but no one phones in their performances.
Both Kate Mara and Anna Taylor-Joy are good, considering the roles they have been given. Morgan, especially, is feeling emotions that she has difficulty coping with, and Taylor-Joy does an excellent job showing her confusion, her volatility, and her pain at betrayal. Mara’s Weathers is a no-nonsense, skilled at her job, company assessor, and while cool and collected under pressure, is also ruthless and calculating, and the psychological give-and-take between Weathers and Morgan are when the film works the best. The supporting performances by Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh are competent, but again, the script puts them in a difficult spot, with clumsy twists and overused tropes.
Morgan feels like a science fiction primer of many of the films from the past several years, and does nothing truly unique with its story. A film like Ex Machina, under its surface, is playing with complicated, deeper themes – the relations between men and women, for example, or the ideals and ethics in a rapidly-changing world. Morgan wants to be about those things, wants to resonate on a profounder level, but it just can’t get there. Stylistically, Luke Scott has skills, and he seems to have a good rapport with actors as they try to navigate through the material. But Morgan, and Luke Scott, can’t escape from the many science fiction films that have preceded them. Ridley Scott, at least, left Blade Runner with enough ambiguity for the audience to pay with. Morgan is much more obvious and on-the-nose, and doesn’t take hold in the mind after it is over.