“Morgan” is about a seemingly perfect creation that’s hiding some deep-seated flaws, and that’s a fairly accurate description of the film itself. There’s a lot to like about this slick sci-fi thriller, but it makes the frequent big-movie mistake of overexplaining itself and tying up the plot too neatly — imagine “Ex Machina” after a round of studio notes.
Nonetheless, director Luke Scott’s directorial debut is an admirable one, assembling a strong ensemble of actors and giving most of them something to do while creating an eerie sense of menace in a milieu that feels believably slick without being overly art-directed. Still, if Scott is looking to get out of the immense shadow cast by his father, Ridley Scott, Luke might have reconsidered a screenplay (by Seth W. Owen) that calls the more-human-than-human characters of “Blade Runner” so immediately to mind.
Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is a no-nonsense corporate fixer, making her way to a secluded location where the corporation that employs her has been spending a great deal of resources in creating a genetically modified human being with accelerated mental and physical capacities. Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”) is just five years old, but she looks like a teenager and possesses strength well beyond even her appearance of adolescence.
That power recently manifested itself when Morgan severely beat one of her keepers, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), putting the woman’s eye out. Lee’s boss (Brian Cox) wants Lee to observe what’s going on and to determine whether or not the company should continue investing in Morgan’s progress or if they should quite literally pull the plug. For Lee and her bosses, Morgan is an “it,” but for the doctors and psychologists who work with Morgan on a day-to-day basis, this asset is very much a “she.”
The lab is hidden inside a spacious but somewhat gothic old house, and “Morgan” cannily mixes its hi-tech horrors with old-school spooks; it’s a monster movie, but it asks questions both philosophical and pragmatic. How deadly is this creation? Which of the staffers — including scientists played by Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie (“Game of Thrones”) and Chris Sullivan (“Stranger Things”) — will Morgan consider as friends if the corporation turns on her?
Scott and Owen keep us guessing along the way, with a few fun feints and twists, and a meaty sequence that allows Paul Giamatti to very deliberately devour the scenery as a psychiatrist sent in to determine Morgan’s mental state. (Perhaps the shrink’s presence is meant to call to mind that other movie named “Morgan!” — that 1960s cult comedy’s subtitle was, after all, “A Suitable Case for Treatment.”)
Cinematographer Mark Patten makes everything a bit forbidding and a bit gorgeous, from Lee’s original drive to the property (which looks like an ad for German sports cars) to a final confrontation in a dense forest. Morgan herself is both appealing and off-putting, with skin that’s just a little too pale and pupils that are just a little too large by human standards.
Where “Morgan” disappoints is in offering up too many endings, including a final twist that the movie treats like a big reveal. It’s information that the audience will have already put together; the effect is not unlike having someone repeat a punchline.
Still, whatever its flaws, this is a rare genre movie that allows two women — both Mara and Taylor-Joy are coolly riveting, particularly when they’re playing off each other — to take center stage in both the drama and the action, both of which get pretty intense. If you dash out of the theater the moment that Cox finally shows his face at the end, you’ll wind up with a better cut of “Morgan” that eliminates most of the dead weight. Choose your own adventure, and keep an eye out for what this young filmmaker does next.