It’s difficult to be much impressed with a film that aims to surprise when the revelations it offers at the end were fairly obvious from the very beginning, but apart from that, while this initial feature from Ridley Scott’s son Luke has some solid virtues, they’re not nearly substantial enough to keep “Morgan” from feeling overly derivative and self-consciously cool.
The film is set at a remote research lab in a secluded forest, where a group of scientists are involved in a cutting-edge project: to fashion a humanoid entity from synthetic DNA. The attempt has succeeded in created a prototype dubbed L9, a being the team has named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Looking like a sullen teenager in her hoodie, the grim, ghostly figure is actually only five, and just learning to control her emotions. As it turns out, she’s recently acted out in a destructive fashion, attacking her mentor, psychotherapist Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Now Morgan is imprisoned in a cell behind a glass wall, awaiting a decision about whether the project should be continued or terminated—with prejudice, of course.
The person sent by her corporate bosses to look into the matter is risk-assessment specialist Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), an almost preternaturally cool, collected but intense young woman who’s all business. She confers with the various members of the team: Dr. Grieff, who takes the blame for Morgan’s outburst; Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones), who’s anxious that all his work not go to waste; Dr. Menser (Rose Leslie), who’s developed a special bond with Morgan, even taking her out on forest walks; Dr. Finch (Chris Sullivan), a bearlike protector of the project; his wife Brenda (Vinette Robinson); Ted Brenner (Michael Yare), the PR spokesman; and Skip Vronsky (Boyd Holbrook), the group’s cook and general fixer-upper. Arriving late to the party is team head Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), whom Morgan calls “Mother.”
The team’s clear purpose is to persuade Weathers that what Morgan did to Dr. Grieff is an aberration, and that it should definitely not derail the project. That point of view is thrown into disarray, however, when psychiatrist Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), a smug, arrogant sort, arrives to interview Morgan and goads her—in what is certainly the picture’s single most compelling sequence—into revealing her violent tendencies. That persuades Weathers that the L9 project must be ended, but the reluctance of most of the team members leads to Morgan’s escape and the pursuit of her by Lee. A confrontation—a series of them, in fact—is inevitable. That denouement explains the purpose behind the L9 project—which should be obvious from the start—and the reason why Weathers was chosen for the assignment to clean things up in the first place. That too—as well as the reason for her curiously unemotional demeanor—should come as no surprise to anyone.
The virtues of “Morgan” are quickly apparent. First-time director Luke Scott, son of Ridley (who serves as one of the producers), works with production designer Tom McCullagh and cinematographer Mark Patten to fashion a sleekly sterile atmosphere, although it must be added that his sense of pacing too often confuses lethargy with moodiness and his staging of action sequences—particularly the culminating ones—is remarkably messy, shot extremely close-in, presumably to obscure the fact that the combatants have been replaced by stunt people. The cast do all that is asked of them, particularly Mara, who presents a supremely steely exterior, and Taylor-Joy, who sustains an attitude of subdued menace that can be abruptly broken by eruptions of violence. The others can occasionally be annoying—Leslie is the most obvious example—but the fault lies in the characters rather than the performances.
Ultimately what “Morgan” amounts to is a shaggy-dog modern variant of the “Frankenstein” template, with bits and pieces of such recent efforts as “Hannah” and “Ex Machina” tossed into the mix. It sets up an interesting though hardly revolutionary premise but then takes it in an entirely predictable direction, ending with rote action sequences and revelations that don’t surprise. The only thing one can look forward to is a brief appearance by Brian Cox, that master of malevolent secrets. But even his fleeting last-minute presence isn’t enough to make the wait worth it.