(2016) Sci-Fi Thriller (20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Crispian Belfrage, Amybeth McNulty, Jonathan Aris, Charlotte Asprey, Frank Cannon, Bobby Marrio, Martin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Harris. Directed by Luke Scott
As our technology and scientific understanding progress, we will be confronted by questions having to do with what it means to be human – and whether or not that definition is broad enough to cover the wonders that are sure to follow. Will artificial life forms have the same compunctions we do? Can we ever truly trust them?
Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is the results of a bio-engineering experiment using artificial DNA. She is brilliant, strong and yet emotionally immature; she’s only five years old chronologically speaking although she is in her teens in terms of physical development. When she suddenly and without warning attacks a psychologist (Leigh) in the compound, the corporation funding the experiments sends risk analyst Lee Weathers (Mara) to make the determination if the plug should be pulled on the experiment.
When she reaches the secluded Pacific Northwest compound where the scientists studying Morgan are housed, she is met with wariness. Lee is surprised to find the personal attachment many of the scientists have with Morgan with the exception of nutritionist Skip Vronsky (Holbrook) who still refers to Morgan as “it.” The rest of the team has bonded with the girl in spite of the attack on one of their number; they show affection towards her, even though they keep her in what amounts to a cage.
After an examination by another psychologist (Giamatti) ends in disaster, the lead scientist on the Morgan project (Yeoh) reluctantly decides to terminate Morgan which meets with resistance from the team, but Lee is adamant that the directive be carried out. However, like all living beings, Morgan is possessed with a strong survival instinct. She also has not only the ability to use it, but deadly abilities not even her handlers were aware she had.
Artificial life forms gone amuck have long been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi horror films. This isn’t really a horror movie per se, although there are some pieces of shocking violence here (particularly the initial sequence). Mostly this is a thriller with philosophical overtones as the cold, calculating Lee is put up against the occasionally sympathetic Morgan, although at the end of the film all our sympathies are confused.
Most will see the twist coming, although that isn’t the fault of the actors involved. Mara and Taylor-Joy both play polar opposites for much of the movie and both do credible jobs, with Mara getting a slight edge in terms of performance. The supporting cast, including Leigh, Yeoh and Giamatti, are stellar and are sadly underused here; their combined screen time is probably less than ten minutes all told and we end up wishing to have seen more of them by the time the movie ends.
There are some beautiful images here as well, with Ireland subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Then again, this is a micro-budgeted film and that unfortunately shows in some of the production design; for whatever reason the housing compound for the supposedly high tech facility is ramshackle and looks pointedly like the Psycho house. If they had just gotten ordinary dormitories it would have looked more realistic and I can’t believe it would have cost them any more to use, particularly in the exterior shots.
Mostly this is a credible thriller that goes off the rails near the end of the movie when it becomes a standard action film and quite frankly, the action portions aren’t particularly noteworthy. That spoils some of the nifty mood making that Scott engaged in during the bulk of the movie, in which viewers are given a disturbing feeling that things Aren’t Quite Right Here, which of course most would know anyway from seeing the trailer.
Scott has some good techniques and when he gets something in his wheelhouse, he knows what to do with it. I can’t say if he’ll end up being as good or better a director as his dad but for my money he has the potential to do so. Let’s hope he finds the right material to enable him to do just that.
REASONS TO GO: Mara is cold and remorseless. The film raises some interesting philosophical questions.
REASONS TO STAY: Another film peopled with characters who don’t behave like real people. Several terrific actors in the cast are wasted in roles that go nowhere.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence in the film is pretty brutal; there’s also a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott is the son of director Ridley Scott.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ex-Machina
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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