It’s not necessarily a good thing when the thought, “Hey, I like this, but it feels very similar to _________,” pops into your head repeatedly during a screening. It’s worse when the first thing you hear once the film is over is a negative version of that thought, referencing the same film. And you hear it again. And again. And again. (You get the point.)
All of this to say: yes, Morgan ends up feeling awfully similar to Ex Machina, though without quite as much intrigue. But on its own, it’s a perfectly decent, enjoyable little action thriller, even if the film manages to largely waste the surprisingly strong and deep cast it’s assembled.
Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) works in corporate risk assessment, and for her latest assignment, she’s traveling to evaluate a top-secret project in the middle of nowhere. The project in question is an experiment in genetic creation, with the scientists in charge of the project developing a subject named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). The scientists are quick to reinforce the idea that Morgan is an “it,” without gender, because of Morgan’s creation in a lab – though some of the scientists have begun to think of Morgan as less of an experiment and more as a person in her own regard. But some recent signs of surprising physical prowess have made outside psychological testing, as well as Lee’s own assessment, necessary.
Now, the whole setup of everything surrounding this experiment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The scientists are being well-funded for their project, but with seemingly little oversight before this visit. The team that’s assembled seem to largely fill similar roles, with more of them than not ultimately fading into the background. There seems to be an understanding of what the problem is with Morgan, but the responses don’t quite match up with that understanding – an issue highlighted by the film’s most tense scene, where Morgan is evaluated by Dr. Shapiro (Paul Giamatti). He wants to test her response to different questions, seemingly knowing how she’ll ultimately respond – in which case, his decisions seem wildly wrong.
And yet, the scene works while you’re watching it, because it builds at a slow but steady pace that pits Giamatti in full sleazeball mode against Taylor-Joy’s attempts to give the correct answers to him. Morgan is frightening, in part because for all other suggestions provided by her appearance, she’s ultimately a five-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body. That actual age is key, because her ability (or inability) to control herself is ultimately childlike, but with far more devastating reactions.
What’s frustrating about Morgan is how, in spite of a potentially solid premise and a more than capable cast, the final product feels like a more generic version of a recent film that was smart about its premise. It’s not a beat-for-beat Ex Machina clone, but the two do share enough similar DNA that it’s easy to wish the team behind Morgan had seen it as a challenge to do more, not less. It’s not a disaster, certainly, but the potential for Morgan to do more makes the final product a bit underwhelming.