Film review: Morbius

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Morbius.

It’s Morbin’ time! While working my way through my lunch (a plate of egg and chips – yum) I was in need of something to watch… so I fired up Morbius. This film has acquired a reputation since its release that has not eluded me, and despite the fact that I generally like to watch things free from critical opinions, the general dislike for Morbius – the film sits at 17% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes – has been unavoidable.

But when I looked ahead to cinematic points of interest at the start of the year, Morbius had actually ended up on my list. From my perspective as someone who isn’t into comics and doesn’t care too much about their cinematic adaptations, it’s somewhat of a rarity to take even a passing interest in a project like this. But because Morbius is produced by Sony and not affiliated with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, I felt there was the potential, at least, for a decent one-off film.

The titular Dr Michael Morbius.

The premise of Morbius is interesting, and as someone who hasn’t read any of the source material I was curious to see what the film would do with its “doctor-becomes-a-vampire” concept. As someone who is disabled, the idea of looking for a cure or a medical solution, no matter the cost, is a relatable and understandable one, and while Morbius certainly put a fantasy spin on that concept, the bare bones of the project felt like it had a good starting point.

There were some sequences during the film’s opening act that successfully communicated at least some of that feeling. Jared Leto gave his character’s disability a relatable spin, if not always a completely believable one, and as the foundation for the story I felt that the way it was handled was okay. There are certainly more realistic and sympathetic presentations of disability in cinema, but I daresay that most viewers aren’t coming to a film like Morbius to see the day-to-day life of a disabled person. The life-limiting condition afflicting Dr Morbius and his friend wasn’t even named; I inferred that it was a fictional ailment, and given that the story didn’t have a lot of time to spend on the minutia, that was probably the right call.

There was potential in the “desperate to find a cure” angle that the film could’ve made more of.

The sequence toward the beginning of the film showing younger versions of the central characters was surprisingly raw, and I didn’t expect to see such a brutal depiction of bullying when I sat down to watch Morbius. Though it was hardly anything that hasn’t been seen before in other films and television series, the way in which young Lucian/Milo was taunted and then beaten by a gang of youths was powerful stuff – all the more so because of his nameless health condition. In fact, that sequence was probably the closest that Morbius got to being uncomfortable in terms of its violence; much of the rest of the fighting and gore was pure fantasy.

Jared Harris excels in every role I’ve ever seen him perform, and although there’s one specific moment that we’ll come to with his character that didn’t work, for my money Morbius was a better film for his inclusion as Dr Nicholas. He approached the character with the same seriousness as his roles in projects like Lincoln and Chernobyl, lending Dr Nicholas an outsized gravitas that grounded the character and every scene he appeared in. Even when dealing with some fantastical and silly storylines, Harris gave a wonderful performance.

The bullying sequence toward the beginning of the film.

There was, however, an odd moment as Dr Nicholas was killed off. As he spoke his final words to Morbius, there appeared to be some very clumsy audio work. A different take on the line – or perhaps a new line – had clearly been recorded later and very poorly spliced into the scene, and the result was that Dr Nicholas’ mouth didn’t move in sync with the words he spoke. If it hadn’t been a close-up shot focused on his face perhaps it would’ve passed by unnoticed, but it didn’t – and a combination of poor editing decisions led to what should’ve been one of the film’s more powerful moments falling flat.

Speaking of falling flat, I had a hard time following the motivations of the film’s villain. Milo – a.k.a. Lucian, former friend of Dr Morbius – seems to be a fairly bland “evil for the sake of it” villain, with no real motivation other than “I can kill people now, so I will.” I didn’t find that aspect of his character interesting in the slightest, and it gave the film a very uninspired and uninteresting feel from the moment it became obvious who was going to be the villain of the piece.

Matt Smith’s character.

I’ve only ever seen Matt Smith in a couple of other roles outside of Dr Who, so I was curious to see how he’d get on when tackling a villain. There was a fun Dr Who reference, as Smith emphasised the word “eleven” at one point early in the film (his was the Eleventh Doctor). However, I found his performance to be somewhat over-the-top, especially once his character had undergone the transformation into his vampiric form. There was the potential for a more nuanced approach leading to a more sympathetic villain, and while we got glimpses of that through Milo’s initial desperation for a cure at any price and later as he died, in between was pure pantomime. Smith’s performance did nothing to damp down that aspect of what was admittedly a poor script.

In fact, those past couple of sentences could encapsulate Morbius in general. What started out as a film with an interesting premise and characters – including the title character – who behaved understandably in light of life-limiting illnesses quickly devolved into an incredibly basic “good guy versus bad guy” CGI-heavy action flick. Nuance and character development went out the window as the film raced through a series of increasingly silly – and increasingly unexplained – action sequences.

One of several CGI-heavy fight sequences.

At first we seemed to be on course to see Dr Morbius discover and hone different abilities. Following his initial transition aboard the ship, he began noting down different feelings and sensations, developing and refining his echolocation, speed, agility, and strength. Learning to “fly” or glide was perhaps a step too far, but it might’ve worked had there been more of a buildup to it. But what I couldn’t understand was how Dr Morbius had the ability – seemingly from nowhere – to summon bats. And more than that, where did all those bats come from? There weren’t that many in his lab when we saw them earlier in the film, yet he seemed to summon thousands out of mid-air at the film’s climax.

There were attempts in Morbius to use light, shadow, and fog in clever ways, concealing parts of what was happening on screen or allowing things to be seen through a haze. These perhaps didn’t work as perfectly as they could have, but I will credit director Daniel Espinosa with making an attempt to use the camera in different ways rather than relying wholly on CGI.

Dr Morbius in his prison jumpsuit.

CGI animation work in Morbius is rather divided. On the one hand, wider shots generally looked quite good, and the “smokey” effect used for Dr Morbius and Milo’s fast-paced vampire moves was a neat one that I hadn’t seen used in that way before. On the other, the CGI faces used for Dr Morbius and in particular Matt Smith’s Milo were poor, despite what I’m sure was a high budget and the best efforts of some talented animators.

The vampire faces seemed to take those used in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a starting point, perhaps trying to blend in more bat-like features such as flattened noses. As concepts, there was nothing particularly wrong with the way they looked – but the animation work used to bring them to the screen wasn’t up to par, and the faces ended up feeling artificial and video game-y, particularly when the characters “roared” or made other oversized movements.

Though the designs were neat, I was unimpressed with the execution of Morbius’ CGI faces.

One sequence in particular bugged me, and I’ll try to explain why. This isn’t something unique to Morbius by any means, and I’ve spoken before about how the choice of filming location can impact a production. In this case, a particular sequence in which Milo and Dr Morbius argued and battled was supposedly set in a New York City subway station – but it was painfully obvious that it was, in fact, shot at a London Underground station. This completely snapped me out of the film, and I just don’t really understand why so many productions like this use inappropriate or just plain bad filming locations.

The London Underground and the New York City subway are pretty different from one another, with completely different architectural and design aesthetics, so why choose a London Underground station for a shoot like this? If filming was taking place away from New York, couldn’t a small section be recreated on a sound stage? Why go to all the trouble of a location shoot only to pick a location that’s completely obviously wrong? I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m nitpicking… but I think a lot of viewers – or at least viewers in the UK – will have picked up on the fact that that sequence was not filmed in New York!

The London Underground has such a distinctive look that I don’t understand why it was chosen to stand in for the New York subway.

So that’s about all I have to say, I guess. Morbius is not entirely without redeeming features. Jared Leto, Jared Harris, and Adria Arjona all put in great performances with the material they had available, and there were some clever concepts and ideas in the film’s opening act that, had they been in focus for longer and explored in more detail, could have led to a more interesting film overall.

As it is, Morbius descended quite quickly into being a fantasy-action film with a bog-standard “goodies versus baddies” premise. I didn’t find any of its fantasy elements to be frightening or horrifying – and coming from someone who can be quite sensitive to jump-scares and the horror genre, I think that says something. Morbius is far from being the worst film I’ve ever seen, nor even the worst comic book superhero film I’ve seen, but it’s hardly anything spectacular or worth devoting a lot of time to.

I don’t think that Morbius deserves the 0/10 that some folks seem to insist on awarding it; it has enough of a saving grace thanks to some solid performances and a decent opening act to avoid that fate. But it’s not a film I’m in any hurry to revisit.

Morbius is out now and can be streamed for a fee on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, and more. DVD and Blu-ray versions will follow later this year. Morbius is the copyright of Sony Pictures Entertainment and is based on Morbius, the Living Vampire from Marvel Comics. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.