The T-shirt-friendly expression “Second place is just the first loser” isn’t always true of movies. On May 21st, 1993, Roger Corman released Carnosaur, a film about a scientist who brings dinosaurs to life, with terrifying consequences. This didn’t get in the way of Jurassic Park becoming a hit a few weeks later. In 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact didn’t really get in each others’ way. And so on. Yet some movies make it hard to shake a sense of déjà vu. Consider, for instance, Morgan, in which the eponymous bioengineered creation, a mix of flesh and artificial intelligence played by The Witch‘s Anya-Taylor Joy, sits behind a wall of glass and conducts conversations with those trying to figure out where humanity ends and machine begins.
If that sounds a bit like Ex Machina, there’s good reason for that. It is a lot like Ex Machina, down to a remote location and a creeping sense its inhabitants might have lost their grip on reality. The resemblance is almost certainly coincidental. Written by Seth Owen, the film’s screenplay made the Black List of best unproduced screenplays in 2014. But in a “Who Wore It Better?”-style face off, it can’t help but look like a lesser to examining some of the same themes.
Of course, if anyone has a right to make a movie exploring the thin line between man and machine it’s Luke Scott, whose father Ridley carved out that territory as his own with Alien and Blade Runner. Here the younger Scott brings a seemingly inherited command of moody stylishness to the film from the first scene, in which Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) attempts to talk to Morgan about some recent disturbing behavior only to receive a knife in her eye for her trouble.
Soon risk-management specialist Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is dispatched by the company behind the research to see what’s going on, and advise whether the project should be saved or scrapped. Warned by the off-screen voice of her boss (Brian Cox) that the team living in a remote, sprawling house in the woods “might have drifted off the original project,” she arrives to find a situation more akin to a hippie commune than a science lab.
Neither Dr. Ziegler (Toby Jones) nor Dr. Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) seem to have a tight enough grip on the project and the young Dr. Amy Menser (Game of Thrones‘ Rose Leslie) floats around in open revolt. She’s eager to get Morgan out and walking among them again. Lee, on the other hand, seems less sure, and as they await the arrival of a psychologist (Paul Giamatti) who will inform her decision, Lee tries to figure out what’s going on and why everyone seems so protective of sullen mostly robotic girl.
That’s a pretty good set-up for a psychological thriller with science fiction elements and, for a while, it seems like the film will be one of twists, turns, secrets, and unexpected revelations. Flashbacks show the scientists bonding with the young Morgan, who’s grown from an infant to a moody, hoodie-wearing adolescent in just five years. Elsewhere, Morgan remembers what seems to be a turning point in her development, one in which she killed a suffering deer, a mercy killing that seems to have given her ideas about her own ability to dole out death.
But thought it begins promisingly enough, the promise comes to nothing: Morgan devolves quickly into a glossy but familiar horror film content to bloody one member of its remarkable cast to a pulp after another. It floats a few interesting ideas it can’t develop and it doesn’t know how to ratchet up the tension or fold those ideas into thrills. And it’s not like that can’t be done with this premise, as Ex Machina already demonstrated. Being first doesn’t matter as much as being best. Unfortunately, Morgan is neither.