What makes us human? Is there some essential thing inside that distinguishes us from a robot or a clone that was engineered in a factory or a lab?
Those are some of the heady questions raised by Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. Exciting, sexy, and visually sumptuous, Scott's phantasmagoric Philip K. Dick adaptation asked: What would happen if androids attained self-awareness, an emotional inner life, and the capacity for love?
Could we continue to treat them as so many toaster ovens? Or would they then be worthy of human respect, of human rights?
Blade Runner had enough philosophical grit and gristle to inspire a staggering body of scholarly literature. And now, the director's son, Luke Scott, revisits that conceptual landscape in his directorial debut, Morgan, a thriller starring a superb cast led by Kate Mara and including Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Giamatti.
Visually, Morgan couldn't be more different from its fabulist forebear. Set in a near future that looks all but identical to ours, it's shot in a realist, conventional style.
And while père Scott created a future world that seemed eons away, his son engages with advances in artificial intelligence, cloning, and genetic engineering that already seem inevitable, if not exactly right around the corner.
Mara stars as Lee Weathers, a risk-management consultant tasked by a major tech corporation to clean up a nasty mess surrounding the development of the firm's latest high-tech wonder.
A beautiful Frankenstein's monster developed for a military contract - but intended eventually for mass marketing - it's a flesh-and-blood being, a beautiful young woman genetically engineered by scientists and grown in a lab.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who delivered a heartrending breakout performance in The Witch, is entrancing as this exotic being, Morgan. Is she an it, as the lead scientist (Yeoh) insists? Or is she a wondrous, loving child, as other members of the project believe?
And if she can love, why did Morgan attack psychologist Kathy Grieff (Leigh), gouging one of the woman's eyes? Morgan says she loves Kathy, who is always kind during their sessions. Morgan can't explain why she went all Terminator on her.
So begins Lee's assignment: to assess whether Morgan is a viable product or a faulty design. Does it (she?) need to be scrapped?
Luke Scott's film turns out to be far too predictable - in part because of his father. Viewers versed in Blade Runner will easily guess the major plot twists and the story's ethical lesson.
Yet this is an admirable debut. Pared-down, efficient, and easy to follow, Morgan dispenses with the long, complicated pseudoscientific explanations that bog down so many sci-fi movies.
Scott also does a nice job building mystery around his two leads as the film progresses. While they dominate screen time, Lee and Morgan remain opaque.
Scott's camera lingers on their faces as they square off on either side of the bulletproof glass that surrounds Morgan's large holding pen. The atmosphere is tense throughout. We know a confrontation is inevitable. We hope that when the storm breaks, it will reveal more about these women.
For the most part, they remain inscrutable, strange. They haunt the viewer long after the film is over.
ss1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Luke Scott. With Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
yParent's guide: R (brutal violence, some profanity).
yPlaying at: Area theaters.