The modern-day take on the Prometheus myth, pretty much kicked off by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” when published in 1818, has played out in so many movies down through the years that a filmmaker who ventures into such a strip-mined territory has his work cut out for him.
Even more so given a recent spate of superb cinematic investigations into the man-made creation of a sentient life force. The competition is far too strong for weak and woeful beginners.
The utter failure of the latest effort, called “Morgan,” from writer Seth Owen and director Luke Scott — whose own father, one of the producers here, could have shown his son the way with those fascinating “replicants” in his sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” — underscores what happens when a filmmaker enters this territory with nary an original idea.
Indeed there’s a kind of audacity in putting out so lame a product while ignoring such recent entries as “Hanna” and “Ex Machina,” wherein genetic modification weaponizes the human form, or “Her” with its endearing, all-too-human operating system.
“Morgan” bears closest resemblance to “Hanna” since both concern young girls created in labs. In “Hanna” the eponymous character has been spirited away and raised in isolation by her ex-CIA “father” to be a ruthless assassin.
In this new movie, a bioengineered being with synthetic DNA, a young girl supposedly only 5-years-old but appearing like an etherial teenager named Morgan, has multiple protective “parents” in a team of scientists and psychologists. She too has been raised in isolation.
Only Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) has run amok, severely injuring one of her minders. So the Corporation (ominously its name is never mentioned) that owns and wishes to market a product line that might materialize from its L9 (Morgan’s real name) experiment sends its own troubleshooter/Grand Inquisitor, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess whether or not to terminate the L9.
So far, so derivative. Only you might notice even from this description and certainly will while watching the movie that there is one key difference. One I would call a huge mistake.
The creatures in all synthetic human stories always, always, always engage an audience or reader’s sympathy. Whether Dr. Frankenstein’s monster or “Hanna’s” wild child, enormous empathy swirls around the objects of all this science-fiction sound and fury.
However, in “Morgan,” the creature is to be feared. In fact, you see no reason why her “family” — chief scientist Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), scientist/analyst Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), psychologist Amy (Rose Leslie), behavioral psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), military medicine specialist Brenda (Vinette Robinson), project manager Ted (Michael Yare) and lab technician Darren (Chris Sullivan) — are so attached to a creature that is demonstrably a threat to their well being.
Only Skip (Boyd Holbrook), the nutritionist (i.e. the cook), seems to keep a wary and sensible distance. Thus, Morgan becomes just another slasher/monster running around loose in a quasi-horror film.
The filmmakers even set the whole affair in a crumbling manor in a remote forest. (This location house is actually located at Galgorm, Ballymena, outside of Belfast, Northern Ireland.) Meanwhile the interiors resemble a prison bunker crossed with sterile industrial-styled spaces. You really can’t get much hokier.
Owen’s screenplay displays a similar knack for tried and true clichés even when they don’t make much sense. What doesn’t get investigated though is such obvious thing as identity. In such a sci-fi world, what’s human and what’s not human? How does Morgan feel about herself? What does her family think of her?
The characters for the most part display little evidence of humanity themselves. You know very little about any of them even at the final credit roll. If this family has been cooped up together for five years, a little more stress and strain would be in order, you would think.
Meanwhile, young Scott, unlike is dad, displays no ability to create tension even in a situation that should create all sort of frisson. So Max Richter’s electro-acoustic score must goose the static mise-en-scène through constant, edgy music cues.
Paul Giamatti, as a shrink sent to determine if the corporation’s prototype is malfunctioning, arrives past the movie’s mid-point to supply a not terribly credible end-of-second-act crisis. Yet his hamminess is a relief after all the strained blank-faced stares from the cast especially the youngTaylor-Joy whose empty stares are meant to convey ominous calculation.
Mara too faces the camera with an enigmatic expression, cool and indecipherable, perhaps suitable for an assassin, which in the way she is, but hardly the face to launch a thousand emotive connections with viewers. If an audience isn’t engaged by the protagonist or the monster, then who exactly are you rooting for?
Nobody here, neither human nor non-human, as it turns out.
Opens: September 2, 2016 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Scott Free in association with TSG Entertainment
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Rose Leslie, Vinette Robinson, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan
Director: Luke Scott
Screenwriter: Seth Owen
Producers: Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Mark Huffam
Executive producers: Aidan Elliott, George Heller, Elishia Holmes
Director of photography: Mark Patten
Production designer: Tom McCullagh
Music: Max Richter
Costume designer: Stefano De Nardis
Editor: Laura Jennings
R rating, 87 minutes