Title-role performance propels new sci-fi thriller, "Morgan"


Even if you guess the twist in "Morgan" early on, the title character is still an interesting one.

Played by relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, Morgan is enigmatic and otherworldly, at once childlike and wise. She's also an expensive, top-secret experiment, and she appears to be malfunctioning.

This debut feature from Luke Scott — produced by his Oscar-nominated dad, Ridley Scott — is a sci-fi tale about artificial intelligence. Morgan is a bio-engineered being made from synthetic DNA, a lab-grown creature that looks like a delicate teenage girl.

Movies have long been interested in genetically or mechanically enhanced humanoids, whether as killers ("The Terminator") or companions ("Her," "Ex-Machina"). Morgan is something in between.

With whitened eyebrows and a non-human sheen to her skin, Taylor-Joy brings the character convincingly to life with a mix of gentle innocence and robotic indifference. She is the most compelling aspect of the film.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by Seth Owen follows a predictable and action-packed path rather than one that explores what is ostensibly its central question: Can technology replicate human emotions?

The story starts with Morgan unexpectedly attacking one of her handlers. The violent misbehavior draws corporate fixer Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to the secret lab where Morgan was made — an underground bunker in the middle of nowhere — to assess the experiment's ongoing viability.

Weathers is strictly business, emotionless and humorless in a slim-fitting black suit. She's coolly distant as she interviews the team of scientists who've been living at the isolated lab for years monitoring Morgan's every move. The group is like family, to Morgan and to each other.

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the attacked caretaker, who insists Morgan "has joy in her heart."

Weathers is unsympathetic and corporate-minded. To her, Morgan "is not a she. It's an it." Weathers is so detached and job-focused, she's like a different species.

Though Michelle Yeoh and Toby Jones co-star as Morgan's creators, and Paul Giamatti makes a memorable if brief appearance as a psychiatrist who examines the "hybrid biological organism," Taylor-Joy steals her every scene. Whether limited by screenplay or execution, Mara doesn't manage the depth with Weathers that Taylor-Joy brings to Morgan.

Both actresses deliver, though, in their spectacular fight scenes. Weathers and Morgan are much stronger than their tiny frames would suggest, and it's exciting to see two petite women executing the kind of fight choreography usually reserved for big male superheroes.

Still, the predictable twist hampers the story's suspense, and the film doesn't dip beyond the superficial. It hints at the cost of denying emotions and suggests some redemptive magic in nature but never finishes the thought.

As a character, Morgan could have been a vehicle to explore so much more. Taylor-Joy is clearly capable, and establishes herself here as one to watch.


What: "Morgan." Directed by Luke Scott. A 20th Century Fox release

With: Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Mara, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti

Star rating (out of four):

MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "brutal violence and some language"

Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes

Playing at: Berkshire Mall 10 (Lanesborough)


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