Science fiction becomes jarring when the science feels realistic. This is doubly true when the science is realistic. In Luke Scott’s Morgan, the titular humanoid character is wireless, organic, and produced using processes real scientists are creating in cutting-edge labs. The result is unnerving, which is exactly what Scott intended.
In Scott’s debut feature film, Kate Mara plays a corporate fixer named Lee Weathers, who is sent to evaluate a rather ugly incident at a secret lab site. Up in the mountains, live-in staff have spent five years nurturing and teaching a synthetic human prototype, “Morgan,” played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Made from synthetic DNA, customized and stripped of most human faults, Morgan is taught what it means to be a person, then denied her personhood. Morgan is a genius and dangerous weapon, but her emotional development is stunted by both science and scientists. She’s five years old, and often acts like it, which, given that she looks like a teenager and fights like a Navy SEAL, makes her very, very dangerous.
The film follows in a long tradition of allegories about synthetic humans and androids — Scott’s father, Ridley, made Blade Runner, one of the greatest — but it comes at a time when scientists are closer than ever to making artificial life a reality. Though the film doesn’t dip too heavily into the science of Morgan’s creation, Scott did plenty of research, and shared his findings in a recent conversation with Inverse.
Scientifically speaking, what is Morgan? Is she an advanced human? A robot? An android?
She’s not an android or a robot. She is basically an artificial human being made from genetic material. So the thing is genetically modified. It’s loosely based on actual processes so you know that they have this kind of experiment in mind might well be possible. She’s very much a human being like you and I.
In that case, who did you speak with about getting that kind of scientific information?
There’s a lot of information around the collective consciousness intelligence facility called the internet. I was able to actually through research what was actually going on in the world of bioengineering and genetic engineering. There was a scientist who I was really fascinated by, he is working out of the Singularity University. He is looking at the possibility of in fact doing this; he’s able to program genetic material artificially and then create it in the lab. It’s actually a genetic 3-D printer if you like. In fact, the 3D-printing of genes.
Did you speak to him or mostly read about it?
I didn’t actually get the chance to speak to him but I did read whatever information I could find on him. And I don’t think he’s a quack, I think this is real genetic technology. That then took me to a research at Queens University in Belfast, where I actually sat and talked to the research scientist there about the possibility. And he expressed a level of discomfort with the discussion, but suggested that this in fact is very possible and more than likely — much more likely than say the invention of an android or a stable clone.
Your mind will be blown actually by how fucking mundane and run of the mill it is. I mean you can go online and I can give you names of places where you could actually buy synthetic DNA right now for 50 bucks and you would get it tomorrow.
There is a debate in the film: Some say in the film that she has no rights, and in fact she’s not a she, but an it. But if she’s made of human building blocks, why wouldn’t she have human rights?
That’s a huge discussion, that identity is what really makes us human, our sense of ourselves, but its a very strange kind of conversational point to make. I think with Morgan there is the fear that this new creature is developing an identity, even though this is what they hoped to do. And because of the accelerated growth that Morgan undergoes, it’s really critical how that identity develops itself. And of course it begins to develop a very strong personality, a very strong sense of itself and identity, it is suddenly human. And so I think that’s why the team finds it very difficult to relinquish this notion that she’s in fact a human. And that’s the tragedy of Morgan, we ultimately discover that Morgan is as human as you or I.
And it’s even scarier when you consider that Morgan is not a government experiment; she is made and owned by a corporation.
The spooky thing is that it actually might be happening. And I can’t tell you for sure, but I know that with just the research that I’ve done that I can’t help but think that there’s got to some big tech company out there that has a little facility buried somewhere that has these poor creatures, whether it’s a genetic creature or a facsimile of a human being, living there and trying to figure itself out. The ownership, the propriety ownership of Morgan means this synthetic human being would have copyright stamped all over it. I think that a corporation would only be looking to monetize a commercial venture, whether it’s in defense or security.
I think the second thing to consider is, like all things that were developed for defense, what’s next? The integration of a consumer model into the public sphere. So what does that mean for this kind of being? Does it mean that were basically replicating our own genetic material? Rather than clone ourselves, we are replicating our own genetic material and through 3D-printing of the zygote or the sperm and the egg, create an accelerated version of ourselves that’s improved. The other thing I discovered is that on a DNA level, on the genetic level, as I understood it, it’s possible to manipulate the capacity of the brain in terms of intelligence so you could effectively amplify the intelligence of a creature. To improve it IQ to say like 300, which is greater than what we have already.
When you set out to make the film, did you have a position at all on this? Did you develop feelings when you considered this script?
You could say that you could look at the movie and say, “Oh it’s anti-this kind of science.” But personally I think it’s terribly exciting, and something rational humanity needs to take a really good close look at. I think that it is of course open to abuse and it will be abused ultimately, but it would be great to proceed effectively to see what benefits there are to humanity. I see that there will be great strides made in the health sphere. The real moral and ethical question about this, though, is that will it create a sort of superclass of beings over time that will see to the subjection of the human? It’s a great discussion with or without that about genetic purity, as we saw in the great movie Gattaca all those years ago about the people who can afford that kind of thing.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.