Have you heard of the Black List? I don’t mean the James Spader TV show, I’m referring to the list of great, unproduced screenplays of the year. Being on the annual black list is something most would-be screenwriters dream of. It generally leads to a big money sale, and knocks down the doors of the movie industry. It includes some really good movies – Arrival in 2012, Spotlight in 2013, Manchester By The Sea in 2014, etc. But it also lists screenplays that went on to be critical and commercial duds: The Johnny Depp scifi thriller Transcendence, and the Naomi Watt starrer Shut In from 2012, and 2013’s Pan that’s best left forgotten. The 2014 list also includes Morgan, the movie I watched last night.
I haven’t yet read Seth Owen’s actual screenplay, so I can’t comment on it directly – but it’s fair to say that very few movies veer too far from the script. Regardless of the acting talent and directorial techniques attached to a production, most movies follow the screenplay very closely. With that in mind, I’m kind of amazed that Morgan made the 2014 Black List. In a nutshell, scientists have created an “artificial” human being – the latest and most successful in this particular program. Although only 5 years old, Morgan’s unique genetic code has accelerated her aging and intelligence. Outwardly, she resembles a teen (played here by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), and reportedly has an advanced intellect and mild psychic powers. But while she appears to have been a success, there are clear indicators that she is bereft of many true human emotions, and has subsequently been confined to a glass fronted cell (by now a terribly clichéd plot device) after attacking one of the doctors (The Hateful 8’s Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sent to evaluate the situation, the company who owns the facility, thus Morgan herself, sends Lee, (Kate Mara, Fantastic Four), a frosty professional risk-assessment specialist. She will determine, with the help of Paul Giamatti’s psychologist character, whether or not Morgan should be terminated. If this doesn’t sound all that exciting or interesting, that’s because it really isn’t.
The story suffers from many problems, not the least of which is that it all feels vaguely familiar to other movies, some better (Ex Machina), some worse (Splice, Species). Original, Morgan is not. And not that I’d complain about the science in a movie like this, but I was kind of confused about what everyone meant by “artificial” here. There’s no indication that Morgan is anything other than a genetically modified human being, so if they meant “artificial” in the sense that she wasn’t developed in utero it’s a dumb word to use. “Artificial” carries the weight of specific implications that go beyond just the dictionary definition. Is Morgan “man made”? Technically, but an “artificial” human? No, clearly not. The staff of the facility have clearly formed a human bond with Morgan, but the opposite isn’t the case, and it’s plain to see. If this were a movie about a troubled “real” teen, the obvious sociopathic tendencies within Morgan would be met with concern and efforts made to fix that problem. It’s not immediately clear to me why the facility doesn’t have a psychologist on hand (especially given the prior failures), OR why the resident “behavioural” expert Amy (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones, Honeymoon) is not qualified to be that person. The mild psychic powers are stated as precognitive in nature, but either Owen doesn’t understand what precognitive actually means, or he’s simply a lazy writer and did no research for his story. Not once does Morgan exhibit ANY precognitive abilities. She performs a couple of mind reading tricks, and that’s it. It’s all very muddy and seen-it-all-before that I found it very hard to generate much interest in the proceedings.
Lee is the more interesting character, but not that much more interesting than the others. There’s a climactic reveal that is completely underwhelming. It’s meant to be a plot twist, but there’s not enough burying of the facts earlier in the movie that will make any viewer go “Aaaaaahhh!” in that satisfying way we all like. I’m not saying the reveal is predictable, because towards the end of Act 2 most people will get it, just that it doesn’t add much of anything. It’s clearly meant to be a big reveal, but the lack of mystery and foreshadowing earlier in the script just turns it into a shrug, rather than a lightbulb. Given that Morgan did exhibit small mind-reading skills, this alone could have been used as a seed for the coda. But the worst thing about that reveal is that it feels like a tacked on ending, filmed because the producers or test audiences thought something else was needed.
Interesting piece of trivia here – the movie was produced by Ridley Scott’s prodco, Scott Free, and is directed by his son, Luke Scott – which probably explains how a first timer was able to assemble a pretty decent cast (also includes Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe‘s Brian Cox). And to be fair, Scott does a pretty decent job with what he has. The movie’s biggest problem is Seth Owen’s mediocre script, and nothing Scott or the cast does can do anything to elevate it. Ultimately, the only thing about this movie that intrigued me was how the script made it onto the Black List to begin with.
© Andrew Hope, 2017