Thanks to Morgan, we know what bedtime stories Ridley Scott told his kids. Luke Scott, the sci-fi filmmaker’s youngest son, makes his directorial debut with a frosty sci-fi flick about his pop’s two obsessions: artificial intelligence and dysfunctional coworkers. The result is a movie about a cold-blooded risk management drone (Kate Mara) sent to an isolated lab to decide whether to terminate the team's passion project, a young human-robot hybrid (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch) raging through her terrible teens. If made by anyone else, Morgan would feel like a weak homage to Blade Runner and Alien. But with Pops signed on as a producer, it’s more the passing of a torch that’s already burned out. We’ve been fretting over machine-man morality for so long that even Ridley’s 2012 Prometheus couldn’t make a spark.
Here, bureaucrat Lee Weathers (Mara) stalks the research team’s farmhouse base in out-of-place stilettos and city-girl clothes, her unsmiling head floating over a prim black turtleneck. She’s stern and stoic, an instant misfit among the coworkers — make that family — who’ve been raising Morgan like a daughter. Bohemian behaviorist Amy Menser (Rose Leslie, excellent) is anxious that Lee could legally kill her best friend, as is Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), even though Morgan already stabbed her in the eye in the film’s opening scene.
Amy and Kathy’s shaggy, nervous energy is the most human thing in the movie. Compared to them, everyone else in the compound is an android, or at least a victim of the bad dialogue that runs in the Scott clan’s DNA. The script can’t even have Ted (Michael Yare) invite Lee to unpack and relax without clunkers like “Hot water is ample here,” a line no one would say unless they’ve had their words Google-translated into Latin and back. In fact, that seems to have happened to the entire film, which starts off clanging with so much needless exposition that Lee finally interrupts the head scientist (Toby Jones) to sigh, “Yes, I have read the material, doctor.” (No luck — he keeps prattling.)
There’s one great scene with Paul Giamatti as Morgan’s Grand Inquisitor, a seated conversational showdown that gives the film a needed jolt. Otherwise, for pizzazz, the film is structured around several shock twists that Scott can’t resist telegraphing at the start. It’s as though he thinks he’s leaving bread crumbs to delight us on our second viewing, but all he does is make us hungry to hurry up and get on with it the first time. If he had, he’d have freed up time to explore the ideas Morgan thinks it’s discussing: What is the line between brains and program code? And how much does that line matter?
The superior Ex Machina whittled down its script to a shiv in order to take a good stab at these questions. That film worked because each of its three characters — Oscar Isaac’s aggro developer, Domhnall Gleeson’s underappreciated geek, and Alicia Vikander’s perfectly engineered bot — believed they were the smartest person in the room. Their struggle to prove it gave the film purpose.
But the Morgan cast squabbles, kisses, and betrays each other in ways that feel forced. You can sense the studio programmers pounding the keyboard to give the film higher stakes. Ironically, these mechanics wind up dulling the film’s point: When no one is making believable choices, who cares who’s human? It’s all just lines of script, whether it’s Morgan mumbling “I don’t have a very good sense of humor,” or the 10111100010101110000 code that moves her purple-painted lips.