CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
The new science fiction thriller Morgan belongs to a proud tradition of stories about humanity experimenting with a new piece of technology and taking it too far, a scenario I would have had a difficult time thinking of a real-life corollary for until Apple Inc. revealed the iPhone 7, famously cementing its long-rumoured decision to eliminate the device’s headphone jack, last week.
It’s not a perfect comparison, partly because Morgan isn’t a very good movie and partly because I’m not sure I agree that removing the iPhone’s headphone jack was a boneheaded move on Apple’s part, but stick with me for a moment here.
Since I became a tech writer, few tropes have gained relevance for me like the promising, even useful breakthrough – whether it’s the latest iPhone, or an automated, human-like bodyguard – that goes horribly wrong.
If said breakthrough is depicted reasonably well, as in last year’s Ex Machina, it becomes just a little more frightening than it might otherwise have been, if only because I now know how closely Siemens’ real-life spider robots mirror their cinematic counterparts, even if real-life AI does not.
In Morgan’s case, however, it meant spending at least 90 minutes (one hour during the movie, plus at least half an hour afterward) with a pounding headache, wondering how the project depicted was even conceived, let alone executed.
Morgan herself (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) is initially depicted as the culmination of a seven-year experiment led by doctors Lui Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Michelle Yeoh) and Simon Ziegler (character actor Toby Jones) to create an artificial intelligence so human-like that upon delivery it resembles a baby, then a child, then, five years later, a 19-year-old woman.
At first, Morgan’s growth appears remarkably similar to that of a human child, with her eight caregivers serving as a type of makeshift family and the girl herself growing especially fond of Dr. Amy Menser (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie).
Unfortunately, when the movie begins something has gone horribly wrong – Morgan has stabbed one of her caretakers, Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in the eye, and the unnamed company that bankrolled her creation is sending risk manager Lee Weathers (House of Cards’ Kate Mara) to the isolated 19th-century mansion where Morgan is being kept to investigate whether she should be terminated or not.
You don’t need to be a tech industry veteran to be asking questions at this point, and I won’t list them all because I have better things to write and you have better things to read, but here are some of the more obvious ones:
- Why is Morgan being developed in a 19th-century mansion hundreds of miles from anything resembling civilization (Coquitlam and Northern Ireland, it turns out)? Fine, so perhaps she’s the type of dangerous project you want isolated, but then –
- Why does the team at said mansion include a chef, but no security staff?
- Why does it include a (rather flimsy, given the circumstances) security fence, but no on-site generator, especially considering –
- It turns out Morgan is intended to primarily function as a weapon?
Most mystifying of all is the film’s centrepiece sequence, in which Morgan is interviewed by a company psychologist (Paul Giamatti) who arrives to assess whether she deserves to continue exploring the grounds around the mansion, but perversely goads her by asking how she would react if he were to recommend she be locked away instead. Or perhaps she would like him if he recommended she leave? When he repeatedly asks Morgan – who, again, has already stabbed one of her caregivers in the eye – what she would do if she knew he was about to trap her for life, she does exactly what we as viewers expect her to do.
She kills him.
She then turns on the rest of her surrogate family, except Amy (even after they refuse to give her a lethal injection), for reasons. (I guess Morgan doesn’t have a chance to process the doctors’ refusal to inject her? Maybe?) With around 30 minutes of movie to go, everyone is dead except for Amy, the chef (Boyd Holbrook) and, of course, Lee.
The rest of Morgan is a series of cat-and-mouse chases, ending with Morgan impaling Lee on a branch, Amy trying (and failing) to shoot Morgan, and Lee saving Amy by drowning Morgan, then shooting Amy (and the chef) because it turns out Lee herself was a weaponized AI that was being tested too, but that’s not the point I wanted to arrive at.
Back to the iPhone 7. I find myself wondering how thoroughly Apple’s engineers considered the implications of what they were doing when they decided to replace the headphone jack. Surely they knew it would cause an uproar, and surely they had reasons for doing so anyway (writers who are far more technically savvy than me have already offered their own speculations)?
Here’s the point I wanted to end on: If you believe that Apple removing the iPhone’s headphone jack was a mistake, Morgan probably depicts the level of thought you imagine the company put into its momentous decision. Even if you don’t, it’s hard to imagine Apple’s engineers investing the degree of time or care into their choice that the doctors in charge of Morgan should have invested into her creation.
It’s much, much easier to imagine Apple’s engineers considering the benefits – extra space for digital hardware, higher-quality sound delivered to Lightning-based earbuds – and telling marketing to handle the rest.
After all, as stories like Morgan (and Ex Machina, and Minority Report) remind us, humans are far more likely to focus on the positive implications of a groundbreaking idea than consider its negatives. That so many breakthroughs have a dark side simply ensures that tales of hubris will continue to captivate our cultural consciousness for a long time to come.