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September 2, 2016

Like a lot of people, I was blown away by last year’s cerebral AI thriller Ex Machina, giving it a high place on my list of the best films of 2015. To a certain extent, Morgan plays a lot like a lesser version of that movie, but even a lesser version is still verging on great.

The biggest difference here is that Morgan is more action oriented, infused with strains of Hanna, but from the antagonist’s perspective. In this case, that’s Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), a corporate troubleshooter brought in when their research project seems to go awry.

The “asset”, as Lee’s instructions refer to it, is Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Despite appearing like a girl in her early teens, Morgan is in fact only five, the product of experiments in both artificial DNA and artificial intelligence. The team on-site — Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, Boyd Holbrook, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are somewhat interchangeable, with Michelle Yeoh as a matriarchal exception — tend to think of Morgan as a daughter or younger sister, and say “her”; Lee pointedly says “it”.

Being blunter than Ex Machina, Luke Scott’s direction can be more obvious about its feminist overtones. Like Hanna‘s Marissa Wiegler, Lee is coded very masculine, from her short, boyish haircut, to her angular jawline, to her suit, right down to her androgynous name, and Mara feels like she was born for this part. She is the hand of The Man, who has created this girl, Morgan, and thinks it can own and control her, literally objectifying her with a choice of pronouns.

At the same time, the film speaks our fears of the power that a girl Morgan’s apparent age is just starting to come into. Young, icily pretty girls are dangerous, as The Neon Demon explored earlier this year. And we also worry that they are growing up earlier and earlier — a side-effect of scientific progress changing our chemical environment — before they are capable of understanding and controlling this power the way we’d like.

For all its talk of artificial intelligence, Seth Owen’s script doesn’t really engage with the concepts very much. On the bright side, it runs no risk of becoming as laughable as Transcendence. It’s also not as talky as Ex Machina, which is a disappointment to me, but likely makes it more accessible to a mainstream audience.

Morgan opts to go heavier on the action, with mixed results. The fights seem to cut around the actors, but it never really descends into Greengrass-level chaos. Still, for a first feature it’s fine; Scott can’t be expected to learn everything from his father, Ridley Scott. That said, he does seem to have cribbed a notable plot point or a shot here and there from his dad’s more famous science fiction outings. If you’re a fan of those, you’ll probably have a few guaranteed moments of pleasant recognition.

If there’s anything that Morgan lacks, it’s ambition. Scott plays it safe here, delivering a tidy, serviceable thriller that manages to stand out in a summer littered with sprawling misfires.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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