The title character of Morgan, a sleek sci-fi/horror hybrid, is herself a hybrid: a humanoid made from synthetic DNA. She’s a biological organism, a scientific experiment, a corporate product. To some, fatefully, she’s a person. They’re the ones who call her “she” rather than “it” — a divide that neatly encapsulates the philosophical questions propelling writer Seth Owen’s high-concept scenario, among the most memorable screenplays on the 2014 Black List.
In his first time at the helm of a feature, Luke Scott brings those questions to vivid life. Much of the modern-day monster story pulses with tension as Kate Mara’s dispassionate risk-management consultant investigates a serious flaw in her company’s “L9 prototype,” a still-developing being whose creators have dubbed her Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Scott’s direction can be choppy, but at its most assured, he finds a streamlined balance between nature-vs.-nurture musings and bursts of demon-child violence. (His big-screen experience includes stints on a few films directed by his father, Ridley Scott, who serves here as producer.)
The thrilling premise of Morgan eventually gets muddled amid standard thriller-action, blunting the intended impact of a final sequence that should produce chills, but instead merely provides information. Still, those seeking smart, edgy genre fare will find plenty to savor in this well-cast drama.
Arriving at a compound in a remote patch of lush woods, Lee Weathers, played with cool self-containment by Mara, confronts a wary group of doctors and scientists. Sequestered for five years, and memorably etched by a strong ensemble, the scruffy members of the L9 project team can barely hide their contempt for all that Lee represents — namely, the protection of the company’s image and profit. To the unsettling drone of Max Richter’s fine score, the seeds of mutiny are deftly sown.
The scientists’ involvement with the fast-evolving Morgan have morphed beyond the professional to the parental; project lead Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones, a disquieting mix of jumpy and calm) beams at videos of her progress like a proud papa showing home movies. Where the impassive Lee sees an asset to be managed, he and his colleagues see a child. Indeed, although Morgan looks like a teen and certain aspects of her intelligence are off the charts, she’s only five chronological years old.
With a frosty pallor and penetrating black eyes, Taylor-Joy (The Witch) is androgynous and more than a little otherworldly in hoodie and sneakers. (Lee’s unadorned power getups occupy the other end of the spectrum for the character-defining costumes by Stefano De Nardis.) Morgan lives in a bunker that’s also a laboratory, all geometric stone and glass, and set apart in more ways than one from the other key element of Tom McCullagh’s outstanding production design: the rambling, weathered house the scientists share.
Morgan is less about the conflict between technology and messy human emotion than their entanglement, a mashup both exhilarating and terrifying. The devastating incident that has spurred Lee’s visit, an attack by Morgan on psychiatrist Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is depicted in overhead surveillance video, the shocking brutality filtered through borderline-abstract digital imagery.
Scott will stage far more graphic violent encounters as the movie proceeds, but this one hits hard in the sight of the recuperating Kathy, a bloody bandage over her destroyed eye. She takes full responsibility for the attack, and Leigh makes a powerful impression with her earth-motherly forgiveness and laser-sharp assessment of Lee’s mission. She’s onscreen all too briefly, as is Michelle Yeoh, portraying program director Dr. Cheng, a woman of few words who’s haunted by a previous biotech disaster.
The suspenseful dread that Scott builds bursts wide open with the arrival of Paul Giamatti’s smirking Alan Shapiro, the shrink tasked with Morgan’s psych evaluation. His taunting approach is, to put it mildly, the opposite of the eco-therapy that bonds Morgan to behaviorist Amy (Rose Leslie, of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey). Amy and Morgan’s explorations of the rich sylvan setting (Northern Ireland subs for the unspecified American location) inspire the sullen pseudo-teen in ways she can’t entirely fathom — or handle.
Whether it’s hubris or love, the scientists (Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan and Vinette Robinson round out the team) refuse to blame Morgan for her trespasses. They can match Lee’s corporate-speak with their own euphemisms: Kathy’s grievous injury is an “accident,” a “setback” or merely “recent events.” Only nutritionist Skip (Boyd Holbrook), a source of sweetly fumbling comic relief, shows no compunction in viewing Morgan as a thing.
In his second feature as DP, Mark Patten amplifies the story’s classic, knotty essence without fuss, alternating between intimacy and distance, wildness and mechanics, connection and opposition. Within the portentous darkness of the bunker, where Morgan is a beloved spawn but also a specimen, he captures the shifting reflections between Morgan and Amy as they speak across a glass barrier.
The beauty of Owen’s screenplay is its open questions about Morgan’s nature and the effects of the nurturing attention she’s received. Is she a misunderstood Frankenstein monster with a soul? An indulged kid with anger-control issues? Whatever the answer, she’s as single-minded as Lee, and they each show just how far they’ll go to achieve their respective missions.
That’s where the story loses its edge. As the film kicks into high-throttle action mode and the bodies pile up, the suspense gives way to generic action. But until its letdown of a final stretch, Morgan is a gripping group portrait of menace and vulnerability, each punch to the solar plexus a burning question, timeless and of the moment.
Production: Scott Free in association with TSG Entertainment
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti
Director: Luke Scott
Screenwriter: Seth Owen
Producers: Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Mark Huffam
Executive producers: Aidan Elliott, George Heller, Elishia Holmes
Director of photography: Mark Patten
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Costume designer: Stefano De Nardis
Editor: Laura Jennings
Composer: Max Richter
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Rated R, 92 minutes