There’s an ongoing argument that runs through much of the movie “Morgan.” Should the title character, a tomboyish slip of a thing in an ever-present hoodie, be referred to as a “she” or an “it”? Living in a glassed-in cage, on the other side of which Morgan’s keepers monitor their young charge — only occasionally entering the cell for a brief interview — the movie’s apparently teenage protagonist opens the story with a jolt: by stabbing this odd little zoo’s nutritionist (an under-utilized Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the eye.
“Why the heck did she/it do that?” is the film’s central mystery. Along with that enigma, the murkiness surrounding the gender and provenance of Morgan (played by the otherworldly Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) animates the first act of this sci-fi thriller, which briefly flirts with becoming an “Ex Machina”-like think piece about what it means to be human in the age of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.
All too soon, however, the movie abandons that line of inquiry for a far less fruitful and challenging narrative. Suddenly, disappointingly, “Morgan” becomes a cross between the underrated adolescent-assassin thriller “Hanna” and the worst parts of the “Terminator” franchise, as a second protagonist — a ruthless consultant from the research corporation that has bred Morgan from synthetic DNA — proceeds to investigate the cause of the stabbing incident and the “viability” of the firm’s “asset.”
That no-nonsense troubleshooter, played by Kate Mara, mostly bides her time as a chain of one bad decision after another starts forming, beginning with the choice to allow a shrink (Paul Giamatti) to interview Morgan. And by “interview,” I mean bait and taunt to such a degree that I thought, for a moment, that I was still watching Giamatti’s Dr. Eugene Landy from “Love & Mercy.” The malpractice session ends way before Morgan’s 50 minutes are up, and it ain’t pretty.
But just when you might be getting ready to write off “Morgan” for its lack of curiosity about the implications of our post-human future — in favor of a blood-and-guts monster movie — there’s a twist that will either knock your socks off or telegraph its arrival long before it pulls into the station. (I never saw it coming. When it hit, it came close to redeeming the sins of the film to that point. Others at my preview screening, however, found it thuddingly obvious. I’m convinced I missed it because I was too irritated by the film to pay close attention.)
In order for the trick of the film to work, however, one must hold “Morgan” to a standard that the movie is unlikely to live up to. If only the questions it asks were more involving, and not just philosophical window dressing on what is ultimately a fembot-in-a-cage action flick — albeit one with a nice bit of torque. If that were the case, then audiences might be genuinely distracted long enough for the misdirection to work its magic.
R. At area theaters. Contains graphic, bloody violence and some coarse language. 91 minutes.