It’s tempting to describe “Morgan” as a poor man’s “Ex Machina” or a more competent “Transcendence,” but to do so would be reductive and a little unfair. Sure, it’s a pulpy B-grade sci-fi thriller, but it’s a sleek, smart, and well-made pulpy B-grade sci-fi thriller that catches you off-guard a few times.
A Black List script written by Seth Owen (the obscure indie comedy “Peepers”) and directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley Scott, making his feature-length directorial debut), “Morgan” hits the ground running with its opening scene and maintains a steady pace throughout. After the title character, a synthetic adolescent child (Anya Taylor-Joy from “The Witch”) engineered and raised in a bunker laboratory behind a remote lake house, attacks one of the scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who have been raising her (for lack of a better word), corporate trouble-shooter Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent in to assess the situation and decide whether or not to terminate the program – emphasis on “terminate”.
Morgan is an exceptional creation, one who developed quickly and was almost fully self-sufficient within a year or two. Frustrated by the nuances of human emotion, she is as emotionally volatile as she is mentally and physically gifted. She is overseen by a bevy of scientists (played by Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, and Vinette Robinson) that function as a pseudo-family, some of whom see her as a glorified lab rat while others have understandably grown attached to and fiercely protective of their creation. Only the staff nutritionist, Skip (Boyd Holbrook), and visiting psychologist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) seem to harbor any doubts about Morgan’s humanity.
It’s a fascinating set-up that’s keeps the viewer guessing during much of the first half of its lean 90-minute running time; after that, things go to hell in the proverbial handbasket quickly and spectacularly after a wonderfully tense session between Morgan and Dr. Shapiro. In fact, much of the movie’s strength lies in its morally ambiguous characters, each played to the hilt by talented actors. The cold and calculating Lee is something of a mirror image of Morgan, who describes her makers as her friends though who is conditioning whom in this lab experiment is a matter of debate. Taylor-Joy proves to be perfect casting; she’s an emotive young actor who projects both vulnerability and an unsettling alien vibe.
It’s a little jarring when the movie shifts gears from character-driven morality play to action thriller, but it does so without losing momentum. Scott and company have created tight little throwback to old-school sci-fi and horror movies about the dangers of playing God. It’s still a gruesome potboiler at heart, but it’s one that strikes some effective chords.