‘Morbius’ a disorganized, obviously incomplete disaster

As usual, the visual effects drown where prosthetics would swim. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

1/10 Morbius would be an absolute disaster if approached as a completed movie, but the reality of it is worse. Despite having been initially slated for release way back in July 2020, the theatrical release is obviously a work in progress, and it looks like no one ever intended to complete it.

Manhattan- Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Michael Morbius (Jared Leto, who also produces executively) searches for a cure to his extremely rare congenital blood – or DNA? I don’t know what’s going on – disease, so rare I guess it doesn’t have even a fictional name. In his desperation, he goes out onto the ocean and performs a dangerous experiment on himself, filling in the gaps of his DNA with that of a vampire bat and becoming a horrifying pseudo-vampire who must consume human blood multiple times a day in order to survive. Morbius, a medical doctor, is wracked with guilt over his condition, a conflict that only deepens when his “cure” is appropriated by his surrogate and/or legally adopted brother who suffers from the same disease, a difficult-to-identify character played by Matt Smith.

Morbius is one of the most disorganized theatrical cuts I’ve ever seen. It appears to have been cobbled together from footage of several different drafts of the movie – you see this all the time at the screenplay level, with different versions of a script built on top of each other, and that usually turns out fine, but this looks like it happened at the production level. Different scenes of Morbius appear to have been produced for completely different versions of the movie at different times and then mashed together, and it looks like nobody went through to iron it out. This feels less like a finished movie and more like a rough cut with samples of different approaches for a producer to look at, then send back for more editing. The movie is full not only of shifts in filmmaking style, quality and tone, but surface-level continuity contradictions and gaps of basic scene-to-scene information.

The initial “Für Elise” trailer ends with Nicholas talking about “the remedy being worse than the disease,” a line removed from the theatrical cut, and I’m 99% certain that’s where President Donald Trump picked up his notion of “the cure being worse than the disease” with regard to COVID lockdown. They were coincident, and he doesn’t listen to doctors, but he does watch TV.

There are all the tell-tale signs of post-production reworking, especially skipped scenes – in one moment, the movie cuts away from Morbius as he’s about to receive his Nobel Prize for developing synthetic blood, then relates in dialogue that he had gone all the way to Stockholm and gotten all dressed up just to decline it because it wasn’t enough to cure his own condition, or maybe because he has a problem with the Swedish monarchy. They set the stage for him winning the award, build an entire set of the Stockholm Concert Hall and fill it with extras, got Leto and Jared Harris into full costume and makeup, and then cut away from the scene before Morbius gets out of his chair. We can see from early trailers that Leto got up to give a speech in that set, they have the footage to complete this scene, it’s just been skipped.

In another early scene where Morbius refuses to give Smith’s character his serum, what should have been an intimate and heartbreaking scene as Smith’s character’s selfishness and lust for power reveals itself from underneath his fear of death, the movie cuts from close-ups of the principal characters to a huge wide shot of Smith’s character walking with his back turned while ADR dialogue walks the conversation from beginning to end. This pivotal character’s emotional transformation, the narrative point of this scene, has been carved out, with the ragged ends pasted together with a voiceover so long it barely fits the shot. When he goes behind Morbius’ back and becomes a vampire, that happens offscreen as well.

In both of these instances, the scenes themselves are still present, but the meat of them, the narrative and emotional reasons to have these scenes, have been removed, like a sandwich with nothing inside it, just two slices of bread and some mustard that’s been mostly scraped off. I’ve never seen anything like it.

As horrible as Leto’s on-set behavior has been in the past, you can never accuse him of not showing up for work, and I can’t help but feel bad for him here. This was his project, he got to pick his director, and he does fine in scenes that aren’t collapsing around him, but you can’t act your way out of a movie that looks like it’s been built piecemeal from different versions of itself.

Beyond skipped and out-of-order scenes, Morbius’ post-production reworking betrays itself in the good ideas, of which it has many, that never last more than a single scene. The best example is Morbius’ first hunt aboard the cargo ship, which is filled with horror tropes, what looks like video game gameplay footage and alarming first-person shots where viewers see through the vampire’s eyes – many of the movie’s best moments focus on Morbius’ sensory experiences. The scene isn’t great, but it’s the first moment that Morbius is doing its own thing. It explodes out of a rushed, by-the-numbers opening act and promises to be the point at which the movie becomes itself, and then nothing like it ever happens again.

Morbius’ visual effects instead focus on trails of color that either visualize echolocation, which is effective but not great, or stream out from Morbius or Smith’s character when they’re doing vampire things for little apparent reason, it just seems to be crowding the screen with extra stuff. Their battles, and even many scenes with only one of them, are almost impossible to see because there’s so much crap on the screen. The sudden invasion of these trails combine with the warping camerawork to take any sense of human scale out of the scene, the character drama smashing into a brick wall of cartoon nonsense.

Morbius’ lack of human scale, which would be almost impossible to create anyway in a movie this disorganized, creates several more problems for the movie, mostly because you can never know the stakes of a given moment. Morbius’ condition deteriorates from monstrous just after he feeds to superhuman to normal to near death in a matter of hours – this instability is what should give the movie urgency, this constant state of flux that forces a man who swore to do no harm to choose between killing or dying not just in an isolated moment of crisis, but two or three times a day. Morbius should be set over three or four hectic days in which the clock is constantly ticking and Morbius’ insomnia, as his condition functionally prevents sleep but his body still seems to require it, becomes a secondary danger.

Instead, every stretch of skipped time leaves the audience lurching, and because of how disorganized the movie is, there’s a lot of skipped time. Morbius will frequently go from starving to fine with whatever he must have done to get there skipped past, going behind the back of what should be the movie’s driving tension. There is an excellent movie to be made here about addiction and the shame of being an addict, watching Morbius sink from a Nobel Prize-winning doctor to someone who must say or do anything to get the substance he requires to survive, but these are emotions and visual cues that no version of Morbius seems interested in exploring.

In his first scene as a child, Morbius dubs Lucien “Milo”
because that’s what he calls all the other children dying with their shared disease in order to make them seem disposable and shield himself from feeling their deaths. Sony has said that Morbius gave Milo his name as a reflection of how close they are, but that’s really weird, and it isn’t remotely what happens in the movie.

Morbius’ nature as a chimera of several different versions of itself is most apparent in the difficult-to-identify character played by Matt Smith, who appears to have been meant to be several different characters at different points in production. He was speculated, and at one point appeared to be confirmed, to be playing Loxias Crown, “Hunger” in the comics, who serves as the same foil to Morbius – where Morbius is ashamed of his condition and tries to avoid killing, Crown seeks out and revels in vampirism. He’s also a childhood friend of Morbius, a role played in the comics by Emil Nikos, who becomes one of Morbius’ first victims. Contrarily, their shared doctor and father figure is named Emil Nicholas (Jared Harris), so he was clearly meant to carry some of that character’s water.

Smith’s character is credited as Lucien “Milo” Morbius – they’re supposed to be surrogate brothers, but it seems like in some drafts of the movie they’ve both been legally adopted by Nicholas, and Milo has taken Morbius’ last name instead for some reason. As with everything in Morbius, some scenes reflect this and others contradict it. In an earlier draft, Milo comes from a wealthy family and is the primary sponsor of Morbius’ work, and this appears to be true in some scenes as well.

Smith has spoken about his character as someone who “sucks the marrow out of life” as he rails against his condition, and I expect there were some scenes shot of Milo hitting the town in his disabled, pre-transformation state. Morbius’ best scenes are of Smith’s character hitting the town post-transformation – shockingly so. There’s a few-minute stretch where it suddenly becomes a very good movie about entitlement, pride, power and revenge. Smith has dabbled in directing, and I strongly suspect he was given control of a second unit to put these scenes together, because the camerawork changes completely and the script becomes graceful and thoughtful.  

Director Daniel Espinosa’s filmography looks like a car crash, as does that of screenwriting duo Matt Sazama and Burt Sharpless, and Morbius is hardly a surprising result coming from them. Cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Pietro Scalia, on the other hand, are Hollywood veterans with several classics to their names, but it’s easy to assume there wasn’t too much they could do with the material.

Morbius would occupy six different release dates as Sony held it over the COVID-19 crisis. It was finally moved from Jan. 28, 2022 to the eventual April 1 release date to get out of the way of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which Sony assumed would still be doing major business well into February – No Way Home, still in 2,000 theaters, dropped to no. 2 and below Morbius’ projected opening of $33 million for the first time the very weekend this decision was made. It has made about 10% of its domestic box office since that Jan. 28 date.

That might be the most surreal thing about Morbius – knowing how jealously Sony stewarded it, only to be presented with a movie so rooted in the “if I can’t be good, at least I’ll be short” mentality.

It’s apparent from trailers that a significant number of scenes were cut and roles were sharply reduced for Nicholas and FBI agent Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson). Gibson signed for three films and Stroud is visible in trailers with a cybernetic arm, but any super-powered action he was meant to be involved in has been removed.

Despite an initial July 10, 2020 release date, the movie went into reshoots that February, just before the crisis shut productions down – but then, for some reason, it went in for more reshoots in February 2021. Without having been released, without any reports of bad test screenings, this movie that should already have been completed was reworked a third time.

If Morbius was getting reworked after its first release date and is clearly still incomplete even by its sixth release date, the obvious question is when was it going to be completed, and it looks like the answer is “never.” The plan appears to have been to release this movie as a work-in-progress, an event movie without a finished movie to have an event around, the realization of Sony’s dream of selling tickets without having to make a movie first – but still without the actual benefit of skipping that step, they’re out $75 million in budget costs and, between two false starts for release dates that would be abandoned, what must have been an astronomical ad campaign

This is Sony. This is the studio that made the Venom movies, which have many of the same faults but still brought in buckets of cash. This is the studio that watches Marvel movies through the filter of counting cut corners so that they can cut those corners when it’s their turn.

This is why I’m upset every time an MCU movie comes out with a cookie-cutter origin story plot, terrible special effects, incomprehensible action scenes or boring dialogue scenes. Morbius is the disaster of a movie they’ve been leading to.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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