Fresh from her career-making turn in this year’s hottest, and most divisive, horror movie The Witch, Anya Taylor-Joy wows once more in a very different role, as the titular AI in Luke Owen’s debut feature, Morgan. The setting is the near-future, where, in an old, isolated mansion in the woods a team of scientists, led by Toby Jones’s kind-hearted Dr. Ziegler, have spent the guts of a decade developing technology that may hold the secret to life itself.
Into their tight-knit, makeshift family unit is thrust Kate Mara’s no-nonsense risk manager Lee Weathers, who’s tasked with figuring out what’s really going on at the facility after a near-fatal accident involving Morgan and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet doctor, who insists the girl meant no harm. But we know from the outset what this AI is capable of, as the opening sequence sees her ruthlessly stabbing Leigh’s Kathy in the eye.
From there, Morgan’s violent tendencies are hinted at as Weathers tries to figure out whether the girl/robot/thing is sentient or just programmed to be quite manipulative. It’s an interesting setup, fraught with tension, and one we’ve seen many times before, including in last year’s Ex Machina, to which this movie has understandably drawn comparisons. Morgan, however, is a much colder, more sterile proposition.
Unlike the modern compound where Oscar Isaac’s tech billionaire hung out, the space here reflects the story’s chilly atmosphere. Something is off, even if practically everybody is pretending otherwise. The hints to the “incident” and the happy-go-lucky chef played by Boyd Holbrook almost remind one of Deep Blue Sea‘s similarly doomed, meddling eggheads but here the humour is all but non-existent.
This is a world made up of greys, where even Morgan’s hoodie doesn’t contain a splash of colour and the trees and rivers outside her cage seem to exist in unnatural shades of green and brown. There’s a sense that there is no life outside these confines, that even the naturally occurring flora and fauna have been genetically modified to give some semblance of normality where none exists.
Those contained within the narrative behave accordingly. Mara’s character is made entirely of steely determination, with barely a hair out of place right up until the finale, when the movie takes a sharp turn into full on action territory. She’s well supported by an incredibly strong ensemble, including Honeymoon‘s Rose Leslie and Michelle Yeoh. Even Paul Giamatti shows up for a scene-stealing turn as a disbelieving therapist who pushes Morgan a little too far.
With a cast this good, it’d be near impossible for Morgan to be anything less than gripping. And it is, for the most part, establishing its central mystery, and odd tone, right off the bat and getting the job done in just over 90 minutes of variously suspenseful screen-time. At the centre of it all is Taylor-Joy, whose big, brown eyes, shock of ice-blonde hair and pallid complexion afford her an otherworldly, almost alien look.
There are even hints that Leslie’s Dr. Amy might be in love with the girl, although nothing concrete ever comes to pass thanks in large part to the fact Morgan’s age is supposedly no more than five years old. Still, it’s easy to see why this group of super-smart scientists has become so enamoured with her – even though she’s more intelligent, and resourceful, than all of them combined.
It’s quite a physical role for Taylor-Joy, who’s tasked with quite literally fighting her way out of her shackles. And it’s to the young actor’s credit that we fully believe she’s capable of anything, whether it’s convincing someone she’s just stabbed that she didn’t mean to hurt them, or that she’s helpless and incapable of thinking for herself. This quick switch is probably most obvious in Giamatti’s psych evaluation, which kicks everything into gear.
A tightly-wound, claustrophobic little sequence, it contains the film’s strongest moments, and is its best argument for the comparisons to Alex Garland’s sci-fi shocker. Morgan never quite reaches the heights of Ex Machina, because we know from the start that the AI is not all she seems, but it’s got a few tricks of its own nonetheless. And as a calling card for both Scott and Taylor-Joy, it more than makes a case for both as ones to watch in future. The film hits theaters today.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Luke Scott
Writer(s): Seth W. Owen
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Ruth Leslie, Paul Giamatti
Release: September 2nd, 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Scott Free Productions
Length: 92 minutes