Renowned scientist, Dr Michael Morbius [Leto], suffers from a rare blood disease that he has spent the majority of his life trying to cure. Funded by fellow patient and childhood friend, Milo [Smith], Morbius has worked tirelessly, researching unprecedented and sometimes dangerous solutions. Believing the answer to his illness can be found by harnessing anticoagulant saliva in vampire bats, Morbius conducts human trials on himself and is transformed into a powerful vampiric beast plagued with a blood lust.
To say Morbius has been a troubled production would be an understatement. Filming finished in early 2019 but something was clearly awry as agreements between Sony and Disney led to reshoots the following year. And then further reshoots in February 2022. Granted, the pandemic would have had an impact on this film’s general release but the truth is that passing this feature back-and-forth between two major studios has produced a generation loss effect. If you’re wondering what ‘generation loss’ is: you know when an image is copied and reposted on social media so many times that it becomes grainy and unrecognisable? That. Or put more poetically: it was batted about so much, the film lost pieces of its soul, until all that remained was a dejected husk.
And the reason I’ve opened this review by talking about studio politics, is because that’s at the very heart of why Morbius is a bad film. This isn’t a story anyone desperately wanted to tell or a beloved character that an artist saw an opportunity to bring to life, it was an intellectual property that could fill a gap. For comparison, in my recent The Batman review, I extolled the cast and crew’s reverence for the source material. But there’s a difference between treating the character, world-building and story with legitimate care and being so straight and by-the-numbers that you end up with bloated, over-serious, self importance. And for a more direct comparison, for all of Venom’s flaws, at the very least, they were ‘dumb but fun’ engaging movies. But before we go any further, I just want to clarify something. For those who have skipped ahead or gleaned my final judgment, I should say that Morbius is not offensively bad but it does commit the cardinal sin of being remarkably bland and uninspired to the point of forgettable.
As stated, this movie has been riddled with issues stemming from production oversight and interference but based on what we’ve ended up with, it’s entirely possible that these issues were too deep-rooted to avoid. From the dialogue to the plot developments, the entire script is plagued by lazy hamfistery. There will be those who will draw comparisons to the first major superhero boom in the early 2000s but even they weren’t this paint by numbers. Every detail is so obviously signposted from the very outset, ensuring no surprises and delivering so little to warrant its existence; as if the last two decades of lessons in superhero storytelling weren’t readily available. Which is especially egregious considering Sony has had a strong hand in producing the most fiscally successful superhero film of the last few years!
A prime example of the writing dilemma is the opening collection of scenes. What could have been a full twenty minute exploration of Michael’s early years and rise to prominence, is instead reduced to a muddled medley; with the film almost unconfident in its ability to start the story. From the marketing material, it’s clear so much more was shot and this was the initial plan but the executives were so desperate to run to the next beat – blatantly rushing to the exciting vampire stuff – that the film doesn’t take the time to sit with what it’s setting up or what has just happened. Which is so frustrating when you appreciate this is fundamental to understanding the villain, his motivation and his connection with the central character. It’s the embodiment of sophomoric “and then” “and then” writing; wherein a writer won’t apply “and therefore” or “but then,” to their story flow, favouring a disjointed leap from sequence to sequence in the hope the next one will be more entertaining. Then acting befuddled when the film crashes over the finish line with little to show for itself. Case in point, we whip past the point where Morbius accepts (or turns down in actuality) the Nobel prize for inventing synthetic blood that saves countless lives. It wasn’t until halfway through the film, when characters are differentiating between blue and red blood, that it was apparent this world-changing medical advancement had even happened.
Now, if you don’t have a solid script, chances are there aren’t going to be any redeemable qualities but you might be able to claw your way to a semblance of redemption through the other crafts hard at work. And in truth, we have hints of that. Espinosa isn’t a bad director – I personally enjoyed his sci-fi survival horror Life – and pairing him with seasoned cinematographer Oliver Wood (whose notable credits include the first three Bourne films) makes for an intriguing proposition. And, to their credit, you can see their work struggling to shine through but ultimately smothered by floaty, indecipherable CGI. The thing that really irks me, however, is the score. Jon Ekstrand’s musical accompaniment feels so generic and possibly a product of hold music, due to the amount of identifiable leitmotifs from things like The Terminator and The Dark Knight. The man can compose but it feels like his hands have been tied from start to finish.
But how’s the acting? After Leto’s unhinged and thoroughly divisive performance in House of Gucci, surely taking on the role of a vampire would give him a wealth of nonsense to play with. Well, surprisingly enough, he’s remarkably retrained, almost to the point of feeling somewhat asleep. His vampiric take comes off more Jekyll and Hyde but without any of the fun or conflict, giving off an air of inconvenience to it all. The real scenery chewing comes from Matt Smith, who delivers emotional frustration, a revelry in his excess, and seems to have a clear arc (for the most part). Although, it must said, I had a bugbear with every character calling him “Milo,” despite the fact his name is actually Lucian and Milo is simply a derogatory nickname assigned to him by a younger Morbius.
Unfortunately, the supports don’t really fare much better. Morbius is pursued by FBI agents played by Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal but there’s no real charm or chemistry to or between them. And it’s not entirely evident why they’re even on the case in the first place, as the inciting incident (that being Morbius’ initial transformation and subsequent murder of hired henchmen) specifically takes place in international waters. Then we have Jared Harris as Dr Emil Nicholas, a thoroughly unearned father figure and mentor who pops up occasionally but feels like an afterthought whose most pivotal scenes were cut from the opening. And finally Michael’s colleague and love interest, Dr Martine Bancroft [Arjona], who is held up as the smartest person in the room but is given all but nothing to do and serves only as a weak, derivative motivator for the protagonist.
The trouble is, there’s no sense of jeopardy or urgency. We are given the skeletal examples of peril, but like a golem, they are a hollow shell going through the motions in this utterly middle of the road release. It’s not bombastic, scary, charming, funny or intelligent. It simply rests its hat on a notable star and one of the d-list comic characters in its asset bin, in the hopes it’ll generate something of note. Imagine if this was a dark intriguing narrative, told from the police point of view as corpses show up in New York drained of blood. This then shifts to reveal how Dr Morbius was afflicted by this curse and isn’t in fact the only culprit. So we, as the audience, start to understand the tragedy that brought this man to this horrific state and if there is any redemption for him. And that’s just one framing idea. There are so many ways to make this story interesting and compelling, yet they chose the most generic and mundane. Shame.
01 April 2022
The Scene To Look Out For:
As with all comic book movies, there’s a fascination with the mid and post credits scenes shoe-horned in and what they mean for the character going forward. But I have no desire to cover them because, frankly, they’re a mess. And in truth, it’s really hard to focus on any one noteworthy scene because the film is so painfully humdrum that it falls from memory shortly after viewing. That being said, one of the nurses in Morbius’ lab is attacked and killed but there is a nice ambiguity to how she is attacked. Why would the good doctor savagely attack a friend? Is there a second vampire stalking the streets? Obviously these questions are actually really easy to answer and eye-rollingly predictable but that doesn’t take away from a momentarily tense and well executed scene.
Matt Smith is probably the most memorable thing about this movie – for better or worse – but there are so many gaping holes in his character that any analysis falls flat. His character flaws and personality are hinted at but never fully explored or developed, meaning every action he commits is solely driven by where the story needs him to be. Is his emotional transition an inherent one or is he merely prey to external influences? It’s not so much that the film hasn’t got an answer to these questions, it’s the fact it doesn’t seem to care enough to ask them in the first place.
“Michael, make it mean something.”
In A Few Words:
“A disjointed, banal feature that tries to insist it’s setting up something important and significant.”
Total Score: 1/5