Ex Machina copycat has ambitions to tackle big themes, but mediocre plotting and characters distract from those themes. The out-of-place violence in the final act shows different intentions behind the film.
To put it bluntly, Morgan starts out as a copy of the successful film Ex Machina. Maybe it is “inspired by” or “in the spirit of” that film. In Morgan, Mrs. Weather (Kate Mara) is send out to investigate a research lab and to “preserve the asset”. The “asset” is a young girl named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), a genetically engineered person. She is kept at a research lab in a northern wilderness, where a bunch of scientists are living together in a dilapidated house. Mrs. Weather from Corporate assesses the team after Morgan attacked one of the team, and she’s picking up some weird vibes from the scientists.
Mrs. Weather is a bit weird herself. She considers the girl, the asset, an “it”. While the psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who got attacked by Morgan, considers her a person. In Ex Machina, the same situation occurred with Ava the robot-girl, but a robot is easier to see as an object than a grown girl, even if she is grown from synthetic DNA. We see short films of Morgan growing up, and you start to wonder: yes, Morgan doesn’t act as other humans, but is that the consequence of her altered DNA, or of keeping her locked inside a laboratory?
So, the central question of the film: what makes a person a person? But locking up an organically grown girl in a bleak bunker seems a less realistic situation than locking up a robotically engineered one. The scientists all see it, but Mrs. Weather doesn’t want to admit it. So, Morgan is like an odd inversion of Ex Machina. It’s not about trying to believe that a robot is a person. In Morgan, Mrs. Weather is more of a robot than the girl is. She’s surrounded by ok actors like Rose Leslie and Toby Jones who are all very lively and star struck by Morgan, and all mistrust Weather’s exaggerated corporate attitude.
All in all, the story feels a bit flat, a bit superficial. It relies a lot on odd conversations to create a sense of awkwardness and misplaced feelings, and now and then a violent outburst from Morgan. But the characters are all a bit unprofessional. Almost dumb. At one point, Paul Giamatto comes in as a psychologist and starts asking her impossible questions: “do you consider yourself a person?” and starts pushing her buttons. The whole experiment of keeping a girl in a bunker and then trying to find out if she’s a normal person is flawed. If she was put in a normal family, we might have gotten a better idea of what makes an engineered person different psychologically. But then we might have had a similar film to Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence (2001).
It’s in the storytelling that the film falls apart. The moral conflicts don’t come out strongly enough, because mediocre plot developments distract us from them. The odd behavior of the scientists and odd turns of plot is what occupies our intention, but not Morgan herself. Giamatti overacts the way a psychologist would never act and Mara never grips our attention. The end wraps things up nicely, though, and lifts the whole film up a notch.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan does a good job, but it isn’t explained how high intelligence suddenly gives her kung fu skills. She has the right age to play a creepy girl. If she were 5 years older I’m sure the writers would have added a romantic dimension and turned it into something even more like Ex Machina, or looking at Taylor-Joy’s wide set eyes, something like Splice (2009).
Films about robots or engineered people ultimately are about human nature. And revenge-seeking robots turn into some sort of justice-dispensing judicators. It is we who are flawed, and are given redemption or punishment by angels or demons that we ourselves have created. Poetic? Not really. A bit mediocre, actually.