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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Morgan movie review: AI why?

by MaryAnn Johanson

Morgan yellow light

Eschewing the compelling SF questions it raises, Morgan resorts to violence and would-be cleverness, and makes concrete what it should have left ambiguous.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies about women; big SF geek

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Tips for young filmmakers hoping to break out from under the shadow of their famous filmmaker daddies with their directorial debuts: Don’t make a movie that invites comparison to one of Daddy’s best known, best loved, and just plain best movies. And if you must do that, consider ensuring that your movie compares favorably to Daddy’s movie.

PS: Luke Scott, son of Ridley, is not that young. (He’s 48.) And his directorial debut, Morgan, does not compare favorably to Blade Runner. And the comparisons are inevitable. Morgan thinks it’s riffing on an intriguing ambiguity of Blade Runner, but all it does is spin it into something concrete, rendering moot any meaningful exploration of a similar theme: What does it mean to be human… or not human? Such notions are barely touched upon here, and instead have been replaced by a supposed cleverness that isn’t anywhere near as clever as it could have been.

Lee Weathers (Kate Mara: Captive, The Martian) is not your ordinary corporate risk-management consultant: she’s packing. And it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that her mission to assess the viability of a secret research project hidden way out in the woods involves deciding whether to terminate the project’s product, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy: The Witch), a sort of artificial human. There’s been an incident, see, and one of the researchers working on the project (Jennifer Jason Leigh: The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa) has been injured, by Morgan. Is Morgan a danger? Apparently there are shades here of something terrible that happened to another iteration of the project in Helsinki, and god knows, the corporation does not need another Helsinki on its hands.

For all its would-be SF headiness, Morgan would be much the same if it were about a non-SF kid.

Now, there are all sorts of potentially compelling science-fictional ideas that Morgan could have delved into. What makes Morgan different from a regular human? What purpose do the team of scientists — and the corporation behind them — have in manufacturing people at great expense when there would appear to be a surplus of free-range humans running around? I mean, sure, the script, by Seth W. Owen, tosses around a lot of sci-fi terms such as “artificial DNA” and “emergent precognition”; I seem to recall a “nano” somethingorother, too. The movie offers a few hints at the benefits of people like Morgan; she has had accelerated growth and at age five appears to be in her late teens; there could be reasons why it might be useful to get (physically) fully grown people in a quarter of the time it usually takes. But the whys and the wherefores of the Morgan technology don’t interest the script: it just wants to get to the violence that Morgan can do. (While there is a definite appeal in Mara and Taylor-Joy brawling their way through the sort of muscular action sequences usually left to the guys onscreen, this is a distraction from what should have been the meat of the movie.) Even the “standard psych evaluation for fourth-level AI” that a visiting shrink (Paul Giamatti: Ratchet & Clank, Straight Outta Compton) carries out on Morgan is all about pushing her till she lashes out, and nothing about exploring what it means to be an AI-enhanced artificial human, regardless of how Voight-Kampff-ish “standard psych evaluation for fourth-level AI” sounds. For all its would-be SF headiness, Morgan would not be a materially different film if it were about a regular ol’ kid raised in captive isolation who’d come to resent her keepers.

With its appealing noirish vibe, Morgan looks great. And the fantastic cast — which also includes Rose Leslie (The Last Witch Hunter, Honeymoon), Toby Jones (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2), and Michelle Yeoh (Mechanic: Resurrection, Kung Fu Panda 2) among the research staff — is so earnest and so engaged that you’re almost fooled into thinking Morgan has something meaningful to say; they’re the only reason this is worth a look. Because in the end, Morgan is disappointingly narrower, smaller, and more self-limiting than all the elements here would seem to point totweet.

yellow light 2.5 stars

Morgan (2016)
US/Canada release date: Sep 02 2016 | UK release date: Sep 02 2016

MPAA: rated R for brutal violence, and some language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, strong language)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    Now I’m having flashbacks to The Machine, in particular that shot of concrete-block buildings accompanied by sub-Vangelis zings on the soundtrack. Filmmakers: never remind me that I could be watching a different, better film. Even if you have already got my money.

    Representation of artificial intelligence is one of my bugbears, I admit: generally it’s robot-as-menace (Frankenstein redux), there to go “clank clank kill”, followed by “argh” and “there are some things man was not meant to know”. When it’s not that it’s usually robot-as-pathos, where the trusting slave is abused by its master. Asimov got hacked off with this in the 1940s, which was why he started writing his robot-as-puzzle logic stories; eventually film may catch up. And the occasional rare genius comes up with the idea of portraying artificial intelligence as people who happen to think in different ways from other people.

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