Lab Girl: "Morgan" a slickly involving, if predictable, sci-fi thriller

Morgan (2016)
92 min., rated R.

Nine times out of ten in the movies, God-playing science experiments that are driven by hubris and the technology to tamper with life never end well. Of course, if that were not the case, there would be little conflict and no movie. This time, if 2009’s “Splice” and 2015’s “Ex-Machina” got around to reproducing, “Morgan” could be the spawn. It may not be as innovative as either film, with heady themes that aren’t as provocatively conveyed, but as the feature debut of Luke Scott (son of Ridley, who produces), this is a solid calling card. As an involving, slickly forbidding sci-fi thriller, there is just enough in “Morgan” to recommend.

In an off-site lab in the upstate New York forest, a close-knit unit of scientists have holed themselves up for years to make history. Following two attempts, Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones) and Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), along with behaviorist Amy (Rose Leslie), married researchers Darren (Chris Sullivan) and Brenda (Vinette Robinson), and Ted (Michael Yare), finally reach a breakthrough with synthetic DNA to create a biological organism in the form of Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). She—actually, it—looks like a young woman but is really only five years old with remarkable intelligence. After a recent setback where Morgan attacks Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), corporate sends in someone to assess the situation and determine whether or not the prototype should be terminated. Enter businesslike risk-management consultant Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), who first gets to know the proud faculty and then interviews the subject through the protective glass window of Morgan's observation room. Lately, Morgan is not behaving quite like itself, and when she starts to see that her “friends” and Lee may need to end her, the doctors that gave Morgan life will realize what separates humanoids from humans. They should have all taken an exit after someone says, “I think this project is headed in the right direction.”

Recalling other movies once the narrative progresses with some predictability, “Morgan” finds its strengths in director Luke Scott’s command of a chilly, precise tone, moody style and efficient pacing. If the film has any problems, it’s most certainly not in the look but in the script by Seth W. Owen (2010’s “Peepers”). The first half is nicely deliberate in devoting some time to get acquainted with the characters, who may be defined in broad strokes, but the viewer is at least able to understand their perspectives. When characters do neglect common sense for the love of their work and time spent with Morgan, the turn of events into body-count horror territory is expectedly sealed. It could have gone down more cerebral avenues of interest, but this is a commercial work that fashions a rather fair balance between cautionary ideas concerning sentience in artificial intelligence and eruptions into violence. On a genre level, it is satisfying but a lesser continuation from how it began.

It is admirable for a film to position Kate Mara as a steely troubleshooter when the part very easily could have been played by a male action star. That would have been the wrong choice because as Lee Weathers, Kata Mara is very effective as a professional trying to gain charge of the situation and do her job without letting emotions get in the way. As her follow-up project to “The Witch,” Anya Taylor-Joy is chilling as Morgan, an “it” who’s overly capable of much more than she lets on. There is such an eerie stillness about her that even that sweet face of hers can turn menacing and then back to poignant and almost empathetic. Rose Leslie (2015’s “The Last Witch Hunter”), as no-boundaries behaviorist Amy, who has the biggest connection with Morgan; Boyd Holbrook, as flirty nutritionist Skip; and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a glorified cameo as the doctor who remains injured and in bed for most of the film, round out the stellar cast. Paul Giamatti also shows up in the middle section as the flippant, arrogant psychologist Dr. Shapiro, tearing into one tense evaluation scene across from Morgan.

There is a certain clever reveal about one of the characters late in the film, and while it can be predicted if one pays attention to a conversation and someone’s demeanor, it is not clumsily telegraphed. The previous 80 minutes or so aren’t there to merely trick the viewer, either. With that said, “Morgan” isn’t without one final hitch—did we need the spelled-out coda before a perfectly clear final shot?—but this is a largely smart and aesthetically sleek debut effort from a first-time filmmaker with a veteran’s DNA. Even if “Morgan” might live in the shadow of its like-minded precursors, it nevertheless ensures that Luke Scott is capable of great work in the not-too-distant future. Fingers crossed.

Grade: B -