Morgan

There are not that many good reasons why a sensible person would compare David O. Selznick's classic film Gone With the Wind to Luke Scott's new film Morgan; the two movies are about as different as they could be. Gone With the Wind is a seventy year old epic romance set in the 1800s while Morgan is a 2016 sci-fi / horror film set in the near future. Wind is steeped in hotblooded passion while Morgan is sterile and distant. Wind is bloated and overlong while Morgan is so precise that it feels terse. Wind is imperfect but memorable while Morgan is imperfect but eminently forgettable. Etc. 

Nonetheless, I'm about to compare the two, because as I was watching Morgan last night I kept thinking about Gone With the Wind. 

Well, more accurately I was thinking about the review of Gone With the Wind that I wrote last week. You see, the main thesis of that review was “context matters", which is a concept I've been mulling in my mind for a few weeks now. Writing that essay was fairly therapeutic and it helped me clarify a lot of my thoughts on the subject, but it didn't completely exorcise my obsession. The entire time I was undergoing the Morgan experience I kept thinking: context matters. What is this movie's context?

So here's what is gonna happen: I'm going to write a little bit about Morgan and its context, because the movie deserves to be examined as an independent entity with its own merits and demerits. Then I'm going to write a little bit about how it relates to my "context matters" thesis in a completely different way than Gone With the Wind does. Sound good? 

Let's do this, y'all.

Yeah, nothing shady about this cyborg - absolutely nothin' at all

Yeah, nothing shady about this cyborg - absolutely nothin' at all

Morgan opens with a brief burst of violence – we see a young woman (who is later revealed to be the titular cyborg Morgan, played by Anya Taylor-Joy) jumping over a table to attack a slightly older woman (who is later revealed to be a technician played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Then it very abruptly retreats from that image by cutting to Lee, a no-nonsense businesswoman played by Kate Mara, as she drives through a lush forest. Apparently Lee has been sent to a remote research facility by an unknown corporatation to inspect the damage that Morgan has done and to decide if the whole “Morgan project” is viable or if the potential for lawsuits outweighs any potential future financial payouts.

This one-two punch is meant to feel like a bait and switch: It is supposed to make you wonder what kind of film you're about to see. The brutality of the opening suggests this is going to be a horror film: Morgan's attack is filmed from a high angled security camera like it was found footage, and Morgan moves with such speed and viciousness that she might as well be a demon. Meanwhile Lee's introduction suggests that this is going to be a sci-fi film: her car is so sleek, and her haircut is so severe, and the orders she's getting over the phone are so vaguely cold-blooded that you are clearly meant to conclude that this is film is going to be about robots and heartless capitalism and other techno-dystopian hooey.

And if I was a naïve youth that had just fallen off the turnip truck I might have fallen for that feint, but before the first fifteen minutes were up I knew that I was watching a horror movie and that basically no one was going to get out of this movie alive. And I’ll tell you why I knew that:

Because the cast was predominantly female.

Morgan the half-robot lab-experiment is female. Her investigator Lee is female. Most of the team of scientists that produced Morgan is made up of women – in addition to the doctor played Jennifer Jason Leigh, you also have doctors played by Michelle Yeoh and Rose Leslie (who you might know as the actress who said “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” a bunch on Game of Thrones.) Some men are visible – there’s a cook, plus a security guard and one doctor played by Toby Jones (aka the poor man’s Truman Capote) – but none of them are driving the plot.

…Which means this is a horror film, because horror is the one genre that women dominate. Oh, sure, they pop up a lot in rom-coms – but at the end of the day rom-com heroines are always paired up with men, meaning that at best – at best! – they are equal to men in that genre. In contrast, women have always thrived in horror films, from Psycho (where the two Crane sisters are pitted against the one Norman Bates) through Alien (a series dominated by Sigourney Weaver) up through modern horror movies like It Follows and Don’t Breathe which focus on a “final girl” trying to outlast some sinister presence…

In other words, Morgan wants to play mind games with its audience - but it does a bad job of playing those games because it doesn't assume that its audience is savvy about modern genre conventions. Opening the film with a scene of intense violence is a bad tell - after all, I know the filmmakers are going to have to cash the check they’ve just written. But stacking the cast with women, well, that just guarantees it, because I've seen enough genre movies to know that the only time that Hollywood makes a mainstream movie with a surfeit of female characters is when the script requires a large supply of potential victims.

(While I’m on my semi-feminist soapbox I would like to add that this movie has a very bad supermodel / schlub ratio. 100% of the female parts are played by gorgeous women – they aren't tarted up at all; they still look and act like scientists... but make no mistake about it: they are all stunning. (Particularly Rose Leslie, but that's neither here nor there.))

(On the men's side, however.... Well,  Boyd Holbrook, who plays the cook, is classically handsome, but Toby Jones has a small frame and a nerdy face, while Paul Giamatti (who shows up for one scene) is… well, Paul Giamatti. I don’t want to insult any of those men, many of whom are great actors, but let’s be honest: if there was a sexual attractiveness Olympics the  Morgan men's team would get totally skunked by the women's team.)

In some ways Morgan’s half-assed narrative head-fake is artistically acceptable – after all, it is neither good nor bad that the film belongs more to the horror genre than to the sci fi genre. But again, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we never interact with individual works of art in a vacuum and how the background context always impacts how we view a particular film. Which gets at why Morgan is so unfulfilling: it doesn’t understand its broader context.

It does this in small (but completely forgiveable) ways. The first act is meant to feel mysterious: Lee is trying to figure out if Morgan is a good robot who behaved badly once or if she’s a remorseless killing machine who is faking empathy to manipulate the scientists who are "raising" her. But I never bought into that mystery, in part because they cast Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan and I associate her with the movie the Witch. It’s not fair to saddle an actor with baggage from their past roles but I couldn’t help myself; the Witch is too fresh in my mind for me to be able to see AT-J as an innocent debutante and not a cold-blooded killer.

(Incidentally - and mostly unrelatedly - that association really hampered my enjoyment of the young Barack Obama bio-pic Barry, where Anya Taylor-Joy plays an earnest college student who is exactly what she seems to be. I kept expecting her to try to tempt Barry to Black Philip’s side but no dice – their Thanksgiving dinner ended up being a perfectly normal meal shared amongst friends and family.)

But some of Morgan's genre problems go deeper than telegraphing its plot with problematic casting. Horror films are by their very nature dark and modern sci-fi isn't much brighter: utopian sci-fi films fell out of favor as the space race waned, to be replaced by dystopian films that often emphasize technology's dehumanizing aspects. As a result, there is no longer much of a tonal difference between the two genres... Which means that the filmmakers should have known that the audience - who had long been trained to assume that the worst was going to happen in any horror or sci fi story - was going to assume that Morgan was evil until it was proven otherwise. 

If you want an example of a movie that really understood that, look at Ex Machina. When Ex Machina's audience proxy first meets Eve, its artificially intelligent machine, he approaches her with both curiosity and trepidation. The more the two of them interact the more vulnerable she seems and the more he warms to her...  But then the movie amps up the tension by making us wonder if we’ve ever seen the real Eve or if she was playing a game with us. And we genuinely don't know; we only know what we've seen, but what we've seen is obviously incomplete. Ex Machina is a much more suspenseful film than Morgan because it doesn't tip its hand early, because its audience proxy is questioning and not inscrutably resolute, because it undermines genre conventions instead of playing into them... And also because it is just a much better made movie. 

Killer robots love picnicking in the park apparently

Killer robots love picnicking in the park apparently

Now, so far I've been mostly analyzing Morgan as a work of genre fiction - and that makes sense, because it is a small-scale mostly self-contained movie and because I know a lot about horror and sci-fi as genres. However, as I was working all of this out in my head it occurred to me that this sort of textual analysis is never very far removed from serious real world topics, whether that's feminism or America's post-space race penchant for cultural cynicism, because individual story elements only become genre conventions after they are repeated over and over again, and what we choose to repeat over and over again says a lot about what is really in our hearts. 

Which, oddly enough, brings me full circle back to Gone With the Wind. My larger point in my review of that film was that you’d have to be willfully ignorant to try to understand it as a mere movie as it is – and clearly always has been – a political document that is built on top of many of America’s most divisive fault lines. In that regard, Gone With the Wind really is different from Morgan, whose political overtones are not quite as surface level. 

But just because Morgan doesn't pick a side in the Civil War in its first scene doesn't mean that it isn't political in its own way. Ater all, one of the biggest factors in this most recent election was economic dissatisfaction. And you know what one of the biggest drivers of economic dissatification is? Automation, which is evaporating middle class jobs right and left.

And what is any movie that is superficially about artificially intelligent robots really about? Automation.

AI movies are almost always about humanity's innate fear that we aren't as special as we think we are, that we could easily be replaced at the top of the food chain by another species at any time. One of the reasons why the dividing line between horror and sci-fi is so thin for a movie like this is because our fear that robots might become our betters at some point is almost as primal as our fear of getting murdered. Alpha males look at baby males with fear for the same reason that original wives look at potential future trophy wives with jealousy for the same reason that replaceable worker bees look at androids with suspicion - because deep down we know that life is a circle and it terrifies us.

I'll be honest: I know deep down that if I had watched Morgan six months ago I probably would have seen it as a mere genre exercise and this other, deeper layer might not have occured to me. But as I said last week I'm having trouble keeping my politics separate from my entertainment these days. (And I know I'm not the only one.) Post-Trump the silly and the serious seem to be inextricably intertwined, which means that a dumb little movie like Morgan now seems both like a surface level thriller about a mean machine and a sideways metaphor about our fear of our increasingly automated future.

However - if I may be permitted to go even more meta for a moment - what interests me the most about my newfound interest in duality is that I've actually been here before, way back during my college years. A big chunk of a good liberal arts education is teaching kids to make connections, to see how seemingly innocent actions have unseen political ramifications, so of course back when I was a full time student I was obsessed with the idea that everything was connected.

But at some point that sense of interconnectivity waned in my consciousness - and for good reason. The gnostic aphorism “the more you learn the more you realize how little you know” is true, and the sense of humility it promotes is important, but it isn’t practical advice for daily living. The farther I got from being a pretentious freshman the more I came to realize that sometimes you need for things to be sorta simple just so you can get on with your everyday life without too much hassle. Sometimes you have to call a bunch of trees a forest just so you don’t waste all day counting all of the individual trunks.

Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned that sort of life simplification tactic feels like a luxury these days, because our pop culture president is as intent on picking fights with Hamilton / CNN / Meryl Streep as he is with his political rivals - and that has had the effect of making the culture wars feel like an actual war. Now every SNL skit and every award acceptance speech feels like proof that we no longer understand each other or that we are talking past each other or that we are living in bubbles we can't escape. I suspect that the reason why I'm suddenly obsessed with the idea that context matters is because I used to feel like I understood my country but now I'm not so sure that I do, and I have a primal psychological need to get that feeling of certainty and rootedness back.

The good news is that the more I think about this the more that I’m convinced that the pendulum is likely to swing back the other way at some point - that the path I took from a context-obssessed freshman to a less hypercritical adult will probably repeat itself at some point, and I'll go from an unsure-of-himself-and-his-country adult back to being a comfortable-in-his-own-skin middled aged man. We can't be hyperviligant all the time - it is far too exhausting - so this mood will probably burn itself out at some point, and I'll go back to judging epic romances on the quality of their smouldering and smooching instead of seeing them as statements about racial privilege (and the lack thereof), and I'll go back to judging dumb robot movies for their cheap scare tactics, not their muddy economic messages. 

Of course, there is an inherent irony to wishing that my cultural context would change in a way that would allow me to go back to backgrounding and ignoring my cultural context every time I wanted to think about pop culture... But Jesus Christ, I don't have the energy to dive down that rabbit hole right now - I'm already too exhausted.

Winner: Draw

Morgan on IMDB