Notes on The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts

I read this a while ago and I don’t need to review it, but I’ve got all these notes on the novel that I wanted to share. You can read them individually. I’m have not included outright spoilers until the very last point, but a lot of what I have to say hints at the ending. With that in mind you may not want to read this unless you’ve read the book or watched the movie (although I don’t know if the movie has a different ending. Which would suck. I like this one).

The story: Melanie is a ten-year-old girl held prisoner in a high-security research facility after the world has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns humans into ‘rotting cannibals’ (104). Melanie is a child prodigy, but the only life she knows is one where armed soldiers didn’t strap her to a chair and wheel her into a classroom on a daily basis. She tries to be sweet and friendly to everyone, but sometimes it’s hard and some people scare her. She’s never seen anything outside of this underground prison and she doesn’t realise that it’s because she and the other kids with her are hybrids who have been infected with the fungus but somehow retained their intelligence and capacity for normal human interaction. They’re being studied in the hope of finding a cure, but when the facility is attacked, Melanie escapes with her teacher Miss Justineau, the head research scientist, and two soldiers.


It has been a strange, awkward experience to find myself in love with a zombie novel. I’d relegated the genre to pure entertainment and did not expect the depth of feeling or admiration for craft that I found in The Girl with all the Gifts. I expected only to be thrilled, not moved and intellectually engaged too. The characters are remarkably well-written and you care for them every step of the way as they grapple with the idea of who and what they are in an apocalypse. I love the way their motivations clash and converge to drive the story forward. Melanie, in particular, isn’t an ordinary narrator but a post-human child in existential crisis, discovering a dying world world at the same time as she realises she’s one of the creatures who ended it. Her point of view is fresh and fascinating.


Zombies are humanity’s death sentence. They’re almost always inescapable and they never just affect the protagonists; they affect the whole world. Even if a cure is found, the way infection spreads so easily, rapidly and violently always seems to suggest that it’s over no matter what. One infected person hidden away somewhere can easily start the process all over again. They’re an extinction event for intelligent life.

The Girl with all the Gifts shifts that narrative. It points out the ways in which life on Earth is already vile and we’re never going to do anything to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves and the planet. Zombies – or ‘hungries’, in this case – might be monsters, but we’re worse. What drove this point home is how despicable people in the novel can be, compared to the hungries. When everything goes to shit, it’s not because of hungries (although they’re obviously part of it) but because of the Junkers:

Survivalists who’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides survive. Parasites and scavengers […]. They don’t build, or preserve. They just stay alive. And their ruthlessly patriarchal structures reduce women to pack animals or breeding stock.

If that’s humanity’s last, best hope, then despair might actually be preferable. (216)

Then there are people like Dr Caldwell, whose dedication to finding a cure makes her just as abominable as the hungries. And Private Gallagher secretly wants to stay at the research facility because his family are violent drunks:

Private Kieran Gallagher knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate. Or maybe it’s just that his family was more given than most to letting its monsters come out and sniff the air.

The key that let them out was always the same: bootleg vodka […]

His father, and his brother Steve, and his cousin Jackie looked like normal human beings and even sometimes acted like them, but most of the time they veered between two extremes: reckless violence when they were drinking, and comatose somnolence when the drink wore off. (150)

Note how much their behaviour resembles the hungries’ in the way they’re either violent or inert. And as a result, Gallagher has to ask: which is he more afraid of? Dying out here, or going home? They’ve both got their terrors, about equally vivid in his mind. (151)

If anything, the fungus is a cure for the problem of humanity. And now that the human population no longer has the numbers to be harmful, society is stagnant, as Miss Justineau notes about the research facility where the story begins: ‘This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained subroutine’ (26).

Life only goes on, forcing its way back in, when the hungries break through the perimeter fence. Ironically, it’s only through them that anything good can happen. They set the plot in motion and revitalise life, rather than ending it (well, figuratively; there’s obviously a massive bodycount).


That said, the story still hinges on Melanie staying alive, and that doesn’t happen because of the hungries – it happens because of Miss Justineau. And she saves Melanie because she thinks of her as a human being. She disregards what everyone else has told her about the kids, defies all the warnings, and acts based on what she sees: intelligence, kindness, enthusiasm, wonder, love.

Dr Caldwell, on the other hand, ‘only sees what’s at the bottom of her test tubes’ (293) and she’d destroy the world in her effort to save it.


Melanie isn’t just a person but the best kind of person. Besides the fact that, like most hybrids, she’s stronger and faster than humans, she is ‘the girl with all the gifts’ because she has all the gifts that humanity prides itself on: love, compassion, curiosity, self-reflection, intelligence, a longing to engage with the world. And she wants to spread that around. What matters is that her love and optimism are infectious, not her bite, and she longs to learn and connect. She even devises a secret language to use with the other kids (although she doesn’t have a chance to teach it to them). The novel frequently reflects on language, words, meaning and communication. These things are the basis of civilisation and of civilised existence. At which Melanie excels but humans have failed.


Melanie can still be monstrous though; the book doesn’t try to make her cute. However, she’s never violent without reflection or remorse, and she’s usually only violent when defending the people she cares about. Of course she’s got an overwhelming need to consume flesh, but, 1. This is economical, because she can survive on very little and doesn’t even need water, and 2. The way she deals with this is important. Unlike hungries, she can control her urges, and unlike many humans she makes an effort to do so because she respects and cares about other people. When she goes on the run with Miss Justineau, Parks, Dr Caldwell and Gallagher, and realises what she is, she’s deeply concerned about hurting one of them. Especially Miss Justineau. Even Dr Caldwell. So she tries her hardest not to. And eventually she learns to manage her impulses. She doesn’t just give up because it’s ‘uncontrollable’ or because it’s ‘in her nature’. She deals with it so that she doesn’t hurt anyone by losing control. And that’s what makes her better than human.


One of my favourite character quotes is for Dr Caldwell, the novel’s antagonist: ‘In a world of rust, she comes up stainless steel’ (49). Which sounds cool, but also emphasises her cold, clinical nature. If Melanie is a compelling protagonist because she loves life and strives to connect with others, and Miss Justineau is a hero because she sees and responds to the children’s humanity, Caldwell is the antagonist because she can’t see Melanie and the other hungry kids as people and refuses to communicate with them as such. After failing to dissect Melanie, Caldwell wants to keep her alive only as a research specimen that Caldwell feels she owns. In this, Caldwell represents so much of what’s wrong with the humans. That tendency to dehumanise. To see others in terms of function and exploit them as such. To use people as a means to a goal. To refuse communication. Which is what Caldwell has done, in her search for a cure:

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road. (359)

This sounds a bit like a criticism of relentless scientific pursuit, given that Caldwell is the scientist in the group, but I think it’s more about Caldwell’s narrow-minded cruelty in the pursuit of a single goal. A goal she cannot re-evaluate when faced with the reality of the children. Early on in the novel, she dissects two hungry children without anaesthetic (it doesn’t work on them), cutting their vocal cords so they can’t make a noise. And the children remain alive after they’ve been cut up in ways that would kill a human.

It’s telling that when the hungries attack, Caldwell is injured and literally begins the journey that takes up the rest of the novel with blood on her hands. Her own blood. And those wounds are painful and incapacitating, as if to get blood on your hands is inevitably to hurt yourself.

Despite all this, Caldwell isn’t a perfectly horrible villain. You can understand where she’s coming from and even admire her work ethic, and I like that her character is rounded in that way. Pure evil is infuriating to read.


Caldwell gets criticised for playing god, and God – the biblical version – gets mentioned a lot. Zeus and a few others come up too. They’re all criticised for their cruelty, stupidity or negligence. Notably, Melanie idolises Miss Justineau as a god-like figure too, and it’s easy to understand why, but we get to see Justineau as the flawed and fallible human she is. Suggesting that our gods, if they exist at all, were never what we wanted them to be.


This quote, about Miss Justineau’s decision to protect Melanie:

some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl, ‘I’m here for you,’ the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. (66)

I like this because it shows us how Miss Justineau wasn’t just automatically a strong hero figure who was always going to be there for Melanie because it was the right thing to do. She is not static. If she hadn’t said anything, she might have let Caroline Caldwell kill Melanie simply because it’s easier and safer to do nothing. But by voicing that idea of compassion and morality, she makes herself into the person she needs to be for the story to continue.

I like this one too:

she’s turned her back on something inside herself, and Melanie is the sign of that – the anti-Isaac she snatched from the fire to prove to God that he doesn’t always get to call the shots.

Fuck you Caroline. (116)

And I like that Justineau isn’t always resolute about her actions:

Why? Why did she do that? (25)

 

If she hadn’t talked to the kids about death that day. If she hadn’t read them ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and if they hadn’t asked what being dead was like, then she wouldn’t have stroked Melanie’s hair and none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have made a promise she couldn’t keep and couldn’t walk away from. She could be as selfish as she’s always been, and forgive herself the way everybody else does, and wake up every day as clean as if she’d just been born. (152)


The book isn’t all violence and existentialist crises. I was delighted by this little moment from Sergeant Parks:

Parks lights the range with a spark struck from a tinderbox – an honest-to-God tinderbox; that has to be centuries old – produced from his pocket with something suspiciously like a flourish. (202)

It’s the last bit that makes it perfect: ‘something suspiciously like a flourish’. Parks is never just that hardheaded soldier type who only sees the world in terms of military objectives (a character type I can’t stand), even though that’s the impression he’s given to Justineau. Here we see the characters taking a much-needed break (giving us a breather too), and we get this hint of how much we might like Parks if we saw him in another life. That’s good writing – giving us the sense that these characters are people beyond the story we see them in.


One last point, and it has a SPOILER for the ending:

In the book, Melanie is blonde, blue-eyed and ‘bone-white’ (26). For the 2016 movie they cast a black actor (Sennia Nanua), which I would argue is essential, and not only because the aesthetic of such unnervingly pale skin would certainly have jarred with the likeability of her character. It’s necessary because Melanie becomes the leader of a group of hungry children and begins the process of teaching them a formalised language. You can assume that once this group is sufficiently organised, she’s going to find other kids. And since she’d be one of very, very few educated hungry kids, if there are any others in the world at all, she may be the only one forming an educated society. Melanie is, essentially, the architect of a new world. And for that reason, it’s very, very important that she not look … Aryan.

Or even white. Of course, race probably would not matter in whatever world they build, but it’s still significant for readers and viewers now.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why they chose a white actress (Gemma Arterton) to play Miss Justineau, who is black in the book. A case of the producers worrying about having too many black leads on screen? Oh the horror …

Weblog #5: Queer Africa, queer teens

Queer-Africa-2

I went to the Cape Town launch of Queer Africa 2 last night. The anthology follows the award-winning success of its original and contains 26 stories by African writers. It’s published by Ma’Thoko’s Books, the publishing imprint of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), an initiative for LGBTI culture and education in Africa. Cape Town’s LGBTI community is clearly hungry for this literature because the launch was packed. I recently got a buzzcut so I felt like I fit right in. My curls, I thought, would have looked so straight.

One of the best moments of the evening was when they opened the floor to the audience and this 12-year-old kid asked, ‘If you’re my age and you’re queer, would this book be helpful?’

The whole room was delighted.

I think this particular book would be too adult for her, but one of the panelists did mention the need for a Queer Africa for teens, and to close off the evening, Book Lounge owner, Mervyn Sloman, mentioned that his daughters organise regular Teen Pride events at the bookstore for LGBTQI teens and their allies.

Weblog #4: On being interesting

It’s been slow going with my current read, Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. The novel is a philosophical mystery that focuses on minute detail, such as the microscopic evidence collected from a missing man’s keyboard or simulating the gesture of slowly raising a coffee cup to the lips and taking a sip. The corporate world of the narrative also has a Kafkaesque absurdity to it, and the main character, the Inspector, can’t be sure if he’s talking to the people he thinks he’s talking to, or actors hired to stand in for them. It doesn’t seem to matter though; the actors come up with excessively detailed imaginings of what the actual person might have thought or done and their testimonies appear to be just as relevant – and insane – as what passes for fact.

I was intrigued, until the Inspector got mired in the tiniest of details, while every one of his encounters seemed meaninglessly mad. He couldn’t move the investigation forward, and the plot went loopy without getting anywhere. I’m a bit of a pedantic reader so I don’t do well with absurdist narratives where you can’t take things literally the way you normally would and the whole point is that you don’t know what’s going on (or at least not on the first read). It wasn’t until I accepted that and just kept reading that I managed to make decent progress.

Then, suddenly, the pace picked up and the book piqued my interest again. Why? Because the Inspector calls Isabella, the forensic analyst he’s been working with.

She revitalises the narrative partly because comfortingly level-headed in comparison to the Inspector’s increasingly wobbly mental state. Her reappearance grounded me when I felt like I was losing my grip on the book. What really struck me though was the force of her passion for her work, and the way she gives us other ways of looking at the world:

We spend too much time looking at the fucking stars! […] I hate it. That urge to look to the transcendent. This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled. Honestly, give me grandeur, give me my feet. […] We are generally, I think, so prejudiced when it comes to scale. There is enough in a simple glimpse of the ground. […] The earth surface is an infinite mesh of bio-trails. […] If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.

This passage, on page 112, is actually what convinced me to buy the book. I’d read an article suggesting that, instead of judging a book by its cover or its first page, you should read page 112. The idea is that lesser books have a lapse in the middle, so if page 112 is good, then the book is more likely to be good from beginning to end. And that’s where I found Isabella, with an idea that took me all the way to the till and, now, to Part Two of the book.

The Inspector is no less dedicated than her, but his is more of a plodding determination while she is bold, refreshing, animated. You can see her getting fired up but it’s hard to imagine him laughing or losing his temper.

In Lauren Beukes’s short piece ‘On Beauty: A Letter to My Five-Year-Old Daughter’ (2014) she writes, ‘You are interesting because you are interested, you are amazing because you are so wide open to everything life has to give you’.

Interesting because you are interested. That’s what I like about Isabella and that’s how she gives the narrative the energy it needs to get out of the doldrums.

Interesting because you are interested. This came to mind again when I was thinking about Melanie, the main character in The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I think she’s an easy to character to love because she’s fascinated by life. At the beginning of the novel she doesn’t even know what it’s like to be outside, but she hangs on to every word she hears from the adults around her (not realising that she’s a prisoner being held for experimental purposes) and uses that to construct a physical, moral and sociopolitical landscape. For her, even the tiniest pieces of information we take for granted – such as the date or someone’s first name – can change the architecture of the world, as Carey phrases it.

Her interest isn’t restricted to learning; it gives her a great capacity for compassion and love, but also the strength to protect what she loves or take whatever action her moral compass points to. And, like Isabella, her enthusiasm means she offers us great ideas and dynamic ways of looking at things. Someone with less interest, someone less interesting, is just going to see things the way most other people already do. They’re more likely to bore us, I suppose, because they can’t give us anything other than the stories we hear all the time.

‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms

It’s rare to find a story as beautiful as it is bleak, with the ability to crack you apart in just the right way. I avoid tearjerker books and movies guaranteed to make you cry, yet I love stories that leave you feeling like you’ve been knifed in the lungs. ‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms, is one, and you can read it in the May 2017 issue of Shimmer.

fallow-ashley-blooms

William is a ten-year-old boy living in a trailer on the edge of a fallow field. The dictionary definition of ‘fallow’ refers to farmland that has been left unsown because it needs to recover or because it’s unneeded, but it also describes an inactive or unproductive period of time. Synonyms include ’empty’, ‘neglected’, ‘stagnant’, ‘depressed’. The story defines it as ‘a word for places where things don’t grow’, and William has never seen anything grow in the field, even though the drunken owner, Earl, ploughs it anyway.

In the first scene, William plays spin-the-bottle with his best friend Misty and her sister Penny, but, bizarrely, the bottle never points at any of them. The game was William’s idea, and it’s like the world itself is somehow rejecting his attempt at affection. The girls eventually go home to their trailer and for reasons he cannot articulate, William plants the bottle in the field:

He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. The dark shape of it, the earth torn up and left to cool in the dark, a little steam rising. How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.

The next morning a baffled crowd gathers around a tall, green, glass statue that has inexplicably sprouted in the same spot. For William – an impoverished child who has just likened himself to a field where nothing grows – it seems to be the only productive, interesting thing he’s ever done, and it’s like a stand-in for his personal growth and self-expression. Although few people pay attention to William, lots of people now pay attention to the field.

Misty says the bottle-statue looks pretty, and William insists it looks a bit like him. He continues to bury things in the field, developing an understanding for what grows and what doesn’t, so that he only makes the field an offering if he thinks it will give him something in return.

There’s something there, in that refusal to give without getting, and I had it in mind when he tries to act on the crush he has on Misty. Unfortunately, his only understanding of intimate relationships come from his mother and the various men she brings home, and what starts out as a cute, sweet kiss between ten-year-olds quickly turns ugly. (TW: this story features sexual abuse between children.)

Blooms handles this with such sensitivity and care that William manages to be simultaneously repugnant and empathetic. You can be repulsed by what he does but feel for him and understand him all at once, in his poverty, loneliness and longing. It helps a lot, I think, that he’s a child who doesn’t know what he’s doing but is making an effort anyway, and he’s got enough self-awareness to see his mistakes.

Here, for example, he scares me:

Misty said she would meet him. She promised. William waits until his hands get cold, and then he walks home, feeling tired and hungry and something else. Something like anger, only smaller and meaner.

But here, I feel sorry for him:

Misty hasn’t even seen all the things that he’s made for her. She hasn’t mentioned them, not even once. William’s vision blurs and he looks down at his own two feet.

I love the way Blooms uses evocative, recurring details throughout the story. I could pick them apart for ages, but that would spoil the story for so just consider, for now, the bottle in the opening paragraph:

The base of the bottle has a deep crack running through it that snakes along the length, almost all the way through. The crack raises up a little, just enough to tear their skin if they aren’t careful.

It’s the one they use to play spin-the-bottle, and it functions as a tool for William to start expressing his confused, premature sense of sexuality. The crack carries the subtle threat of hurt and blood, and its cutting edge is recalled, when William’s mother is introduced:

William lives with his mother, who is beautiful, and younger than any other mother William has ever met. Her name is Shannon. She has white-blond hair and a scar in the crook of her arm and even that is beautiful–in the way that it raises up from the rest of her skin, in the way that it curves, in the way that it never changes.

That sense of danger, damage and sexuality is significant, and heightened when you realise that William’s relationship with his mother is a bit worrying. She’ll come home drunk and dance with him, or crawl into his bed, her breath fever-hot against his neck as she tells him things she has no one else to tell to. When William kisses Misty, he ‘thinks of his mother and wonders if he is doing it right’. Which is not to say that his mother is a bad person – Blooms gives her enough character for us to understand that, like William, she seems to be trying her best in difficult circumstances. Shannon’s working all the time to care for herself and her son, and she goes on dates because, like most people, she wants a partner who loves her; who can hold that against her? She might be likened to a cracked glass bottle, but it’s worth noting that the bottle was the least broken one that Misty found among the ‘tired things, slowly fading towards the same color of rusty brown’ in the barn. The sense of poverty and stagnation is palpable and unnerving without being overwhelming.

And that, I think, is also why this story is so good – it’s brutal but delicately so, incredibly thoughtful and nuanced. I hope to see more of Blooms’ work.

Weblog #3 – On picking something to read and giving people a chance

Personal goals:
Take time to relax without thinking, I should be working.
Read a book.

I can’t seem to finish anything though. (“When are you going to write a book Lauren?” Hahahahahahaha, SHUT UP.) My last few reads – The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Slipping by Lauren Beukes – were like hot dates that hit all my sweet spots. I disappeared into them in a haze of Oh my god, this is so fucking good, and now I want the next book to give me that same experience.

This is not an expectation I want to harbour. It’s unfair. It’s like meeting someone and wanting them to have all the qualities you’ve ascribed to your perfect partner in the isolation tank that is your mind (I absolutely do not ever do this. *coughs*). Few books are going to have that effect, and you can’t predict which ones will, especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. It’s not just about the content or the quality of the book either, but the time you give it and when you happen to read it. Your life right now is part of the reading process. I love the title story of Slipping because the protagonist chooses to keep sprinting after she’s knocked down and broken in the middle of a race, and her heart literally starts slipping out of her cybernetically modified chest. I read ‘Slipping’ right after someone I thought was a friend told me I wasn’t worth any time or effort, and the story described, better than I could, exactly how that had made me feel. On a different day, ‘Slipping’ might have been a good story instead of a great one.

But I couldn’t know what those books would do for me, and I didn’t read them expecting to find what I did. I just opened up and got to know them for what they were. Also, it took two or three false starts before I finished The Liminal People and The Girl With All the Gifts, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have finished Slipping if I hadn’t agreed to write a review. Yet instead of giving another book the same courtesy, I sought recurrence by specifically trying to identify an exceptional book perfectly suited to my preferences in the moment. I read a few pages here, tried something else there, and did nothing but waste enough time to finish several novels.

So I reverted to the strategy that kept this blog going for years: pick something and finish it. No matter what it’s like. Even if it fails to impress me right away or there are things I don’t like about it. Nothing out there was written just for me. But my book collection is at least curated – almost everything on my shelf and the majority of the content on my Kindle is there because I want to read it. So why don’t I? Each book and short story has the potential to be something I love. I had to just pick one and give it a chance. I used to select reads according to publishing dates and reading challenges, but those don’t matter right now so I had to find other criteria. It didn’t really matter what they were if my only goal was to just bloody read a book.

 

Infinite-Ground

I chose Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. It’s the last new book that I bought. It sounds fascinating but I bought it largely because it’s beautiful, and it feels good to hold something beautiful. It also cost a lot of money that I couldn’t quite afford (and would really appreciate having back in my wallet right now), so I wanted it to do something more than sit pretty on my shelf with nothing to show but its spine.

No one seems to like this strategy. People often insist that life is too short to read bad books. They declare that a book has fifty pages or three chapters or whatever to hook them and then it’s over. Which is fine if reading is just a casual hobby, but I wouldn’t have a career if I was that fussy or demanding, if I didn’t read bad books and learn from them. Nor would I love my favourites as much as I do if they didn’t stand out against a background of mediocrity and shit. It’s no use having an attitude that says, Be great or begone.

And in my next life goal, I’ll try to be that considerate with people, too.

Weblog 7 May 2017

I have to nod in agreement to Sarah Gailey’s fictional essay on why you can’t trust Batman:

“We live our lives, and he lives his life,” he says. “He throws parties, and we work. He sleeps with whatever new lady catches his fancy, we clean up rubble.” He shrugs, continues cutting in a sharp edge of paint near the ceiling. “He’s never had a job, kid. What he gets up to is nothing that we’ll ever be a part of.”

 

Why is this billionaire playboy still a billionaire? It doesn’t seem right to you. Doesn’t seem fair. He funded your orphanage… but when you think about it, it’s pretty weird that the city needs such a large orphanage.

People typically respond to this sort of thing with something like, But if that was the case we wouldn’t have a story. (Or the story would be a dull political drama.) Yes. So? That doesn’t mean we can’t point out problems with the mechanisms used to set the story in motion. We tend to be defensive when it concerns something we enjoy, but we’re quick to criticise a problematic premise when we’re also critical of the story that follows.

I think this alternative perspective of Batman is really interesting. We consider him a hero and enjoy his heroics. We can’t help but cheer for someone who fights and kills people we know are bad because we all have (or think we have) these types of people affecting our daily lives. We know most of them are going to get away with it. The police, the courts and the politicians can’t or won’t do the right thing the way Batman can.

But yeah, a billionaire … The very fact that billionaires can exist is an injustice. And It’s not like Batman is helping society in the only way he can. He has enough resources to provide affordable quality education and healthcare, alleviate poverty, empower law enforcement, etc. Instead, he spends his time training and uses his money to enable him to do the major crime fighting himself. He’s not so much a hero as he is a control freak who can’t see beyond his own wealth.

Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

house

The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

psych-evaluation

The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

Amy-and-Morgan

Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.