CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
Stories about humans coming to regret new technology are nearly as old as civilization itself – after all, what is the Greek myth of the titan Prometheus, if not a tale of how the gods cursed us for taking advantage of fire?
Science fiction especially is well equipped to carry on this tradition, and since I became a tech writer, few of its tropes have gained more relevance for me than humans experimenting with a new piece of technology – whether it’s a device that allows us to enter each others’ dreams or, in Morgan’s case, developing an automated, human-like bodyguard – and taking it too far.
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.
If not, as in Morgan’s case, it means 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.
I doubt I would have liked Morgan anyway, but before I started working at ITWC, it wouldn’t have been because I hurt my brain trying to imagine the mindset of the developers behind Lee – who, despite the lesson in front of them, don’t seem to care about the implications of creating a slightly more well-behaved psychopathic killer robot. I doubt writer Seth W. Owen or director Luke Scott (son of Ridley) gave it a second, or even first, thought either.
Then again, as stories like Morgan (and Ex Machina, and Inception) remind us, humans are far more likely to focus on the positive results of a groundbreaking idea than consider its negatives, despite the ready presence of so many real-life breakthroughs with a dark side – ensuring that tales of hubris will continue to captivate our cultural consciousness for a long time to come.