Nepotism is occasionally a positive, and not just for the direct beneficiary. Ridley Scott gave us Alien, with heroine Ripley and a memorable cast of ne’er-do-wells and villains with defined personalities. And now Scott’s son, Luke, who’s been shadowing his dad on his last few big-budget films, has delivered unto us a sci-fi thriller that would make any father proud. Morgan isn’t perfect. I called the ending twenty minutes in, but even if his film’s plot is predictable, the younger Scott is returning the ensemble thriller to its roots with something far more important than an airtight story: compelling, well-drawn characters and the talented actors to play them.
Looking at this cast list gives me life. Toby Jones, an elastic, perennial entertainer who was a knockout in this year’s indie fantasia masterpiece Tale of Tales, is Dr. Ziegler, the gentle, misguided scientist/father figure to a genetically modified child, Morgan. Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is Dr. Cheng, the cautious and concerned “mother” to that creature. Rose Leslie, who was eerie and terrifying in 2014’s psychologically haunting Honeymoon, is Dr. Amy Menser, a highly emotional behaviorist who’s grown far too attached to Morgan. The GMO killer teen is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout lead in horror hit The Witch. All Morgan wants is to be human and free, but she can’t shake her inclination to maim her scientist friends.
Also, Jennifer Jason Fucking Leigh is in this movie as Dr. Kathy Grieff, who loses an eye pretty quickly to Morgan’s stabbing prowess. And then there’s Vinette Robinson (Sherlock) and Chris Sullivan (The Knick) as Drs. Finch, the odd-couple pairing of the straitlaced wife and big-friendly-bear husband. Top this all off with Kate Mara (who’s clearly taken some action-star tips from sister Rooney’s turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) playing Lee Weathers, the corporate “risk assessment” contractor/assassin, and I doubt any movie this year will even come near the greatness of this ensemble. Thanks should be given to casting director Carmen Cuba, who also graced her people-finding faculties upon Netflix’s nostalgia megahit Stranger Things (plus The Martian and Magic Mike, among others).
This signals, for a studio film, a welcome move away from tossing onscreen the simply beautiful. Scott instead showcases those talented actors with interesting faces who can make any flat line ring. (For the record, we’re talking about a lot of women and multiple nonwhite actors here, too.) Leigh’s only got a few spare minutes in the film, but she’s gruff and difficult and takes a punch with charisma. And even though the script doesn’t give him much to work with, Jones reveals the character of his troubled scientist through nervous mannerisms and protective glances at his humanoid creation through the bulletproof glass of her cold, Ikea-like prison. The scientists all needle in their own ways at Lee, stressing that Morgan is “special,” that she’s more human than the contractor will ever understand, but they all know the hard truth: Lee’s there to kill her.
Yes, this is a well-worn premise. Off the top of my head, the Species franchise and Hanna (2011) also feature a GMO girl assassin no one can control. And though somewhat unsung at its release, Hanna probably tackles the thriller elements better than Scott does with Morgan — that film doesn’t bother with relaying backstory by having a character watch home movies that clearly don’t look like home movies. But Scott’s challenge here is to create tension in a single location, a country house in mossy-green remote Northern Ireland. He does so by smartly saving his big set pieces for the last half of the movie.
A comparison could be made to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, whose O.O.C. girl robot spends most of the movie simply threatening menace with an occasional dead-eyed stare into a security camera. Scott makes this film’s premise float on its drama (you can do that with good actors), only spicing the narrative with hints of Morgan’s true deadliness. Paul Goddamn Giamatti, as a psychologist who has come to assess her viability as a controlled “product,” gets subjected to a particularly gruesome bout of violence, all as Scott ramps up the tension to its breaking point (with a dash of humor!).
Something has to be said for the costume designer of this film, Stefano De Nardis, who dresses each character to a T, pun intended. Lee sports both formal and casual ninja-wear that still looks like something a real-world non-ninja might wear. Placing the murderous teen girl in a baggy, grayscale sweatsuit is a stroke of genius, especially for close-up shots, where her icy makeup job contrasts with the fuzzy, textured wool of her hoodie.
Morgan, in many ways, is a copy of a copy. But what Scott is copying is his father’s early films, highly worthy originals. Will the film be considered an instant classic, like the elder Scott’s? Probably not. But it will be enjoyed, because the biggest lesson Scott seems to have picked up from his dad is the old Hollywood way of doing things, where the team a director assembles is just as important as a director’s own individual vision. I, for one, am greatly looking forward to this ambitious young filmmaker’s next sci-fi feature (rumored to be a zombie version of the Donner Party story!).
Directed by Luke Scott
20th Century Fox
Opens September 2