Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"In any film franchise there's got to be one that's the least good, and this is it."

In the cinematic release that Eye For Film saw, Morbius was preceded by a trailer for Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. The Living Vampire, Dr. Michael Morbius had his start as a Spider-Man villain. That's mentioned because Morbius has to be read in all the contexts that provides, bringing with it issues both on and off the screen.

Mostly on the screen. At 104 minutes this manages to be both weirdly short and too long, with a pace that less mimics the stalk and scurry of a supernatural predator than the shambling and stumbling of sickened prey. I don't know how much of what was written or filmed was on the screen but it seems at least one dead hand (be it of the market or marketing) tipped the scale against quality.

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I'm not even sure it's worth talking about Jared Leto's performance, yet another bout of lank and sweaty mannerism wrapped in those somehow still boyish looks, interspersed with more CGI than you could shake a tennis ball on the end of a stick at. He's paired with adoptive brother 'Milo', former Doctor Who Matt Smith, possibly selected from a list of people with more prominent cheekbones than Leto who were not yet tied to an MCU project. We'll get that in flashbacks though, where the pair of American and English schoolboys with a rare genetic condition are raised in something between a hospice and an orphanage in Greece. Seeing them set against the natives, a term I use advisedly, when they describe themselves as "the original Spartans" it raises a hell of a lot (indeed, even a helot) of questions.

We start with our doctor arriving by helicopter at a vampire bat cave in Cerro de la Muerte, a real place in Costa Rica that translates as 'The Mountain of Death'. Though the cave itself is not real, at some points so dark and free of contrast that it appeared projection had failed. That might be a consequence of the reflectivity forced upon modern cinema screens by the demands of 3D, but it was a darkness that made rock look muddy. When bits of the title sequence and the credits have a pastel neon intensity that seems to harken to the same airbrushed panel van music video mentality as Mandy the absence of colour is in places vexing. In others it's almost insulting to the intelligence, or a desperate attempt to avoid the problem the first Venom movie had where two near indistinguishable globs of mucous were beating the snot out of each other. There are costumes with purple linings, convenient orange jumpsuits, and a teal cravat or similar to allow this kind of coded conflict.

There are better bits. There's some startling use of red as framing that's a starker contrast than the wiggly turbulence of tenebrous tendrils as our vampires fly. That's vampires that are created by genetic splicing but have superhuman, indeed even supernatural powers, or at least seem to. In effect Morbius arranges to be bitten by a radioactive bat, gaining the proportionate speed and strength of Dracula. I mean, as has been observed, spiders have the means to sense danger at a distance, but they're called eyes. Eyes that might be able to distinguish colours though the heavy-handed references to Dr. Morbius' Nobel-prize worthy artificial blood (blue) and the real thing (red). When someone blue-blooded says "taste the red" it speaks less of summoning than the sommelier.

There are nods to Morbius' original creators in the presence of a shop called Thomas + Kane. Roy Thomas and Gil Kane took advantage of a 1971 change in Comics Code Authority rules that had been brought in after horror comics, and created a character whose appearance was in part based on Jack Palance. The transition from 1974's TV movie Dracula to American Psycho's Paul Allen is not the only triumph of moisturiser. Well, makeup anyway, or possibly sticky monochrome dots for later post-processing. The vampiric appearances owe more than a debt to another TV vampire, Buffy and Angel et al. There's other nods to vampire films, an important cargo ship that washes ashore with all its crew dead lacks three boxes of earth or a big black dog, but is registered as the LCV Murnau. FV might have been closer to the director of Nosferatu, but Landing Craft Vampire would be more on the nose if this vampirism didn't cut it off in the interests of spite.

Well, not spite, perhaps. Maybe horror. Not that this is horrific, except potentially in quality. This has the feel of something that has been meddled with, as if scenes are missing, that there has been heavy-handed rearrangement. Not just a sky split with multiversal pixels or the sudden appearance of vultures, this is a film that has a massive hole in New York that it uses for a climactic battle which is just about appropriate because that reflects the structure of the plot. There are sequences that look like point of view from a first person computer game from the Alien franchise, all steam and angles. There's also a vertiginous jump from the streets of New York to London's Charing Cross, though it's been dressed as somewhere on the A line. Even Thor: The Dark World didn't take liberties as big as that and it put Greenwich on the tube.

Co-Writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless have a chequered career. Dracula Untold might have been better so, Gods Of Egypt is the one that didn't have the X-Men and wasn't Immortals, and while Power Rangers was also colour coded it was primarily so and not accents to gloom. Director Daniel Espinosa did the lovely Easy Money (Snabba Cash) and then got a Hollywood breakthrough via South Africa with the twisty espionage caper Safe House. He also did more horror adjacent work Child 44 and actual space horror Life. All of those suggest he's more capable of delivering something entertaining than this. There are flashes of life, a spatter of material on the lens is a virtual grounding in the messy that feels at once as real and unreal as lens flare in a video game.

The influence of the MCU and its weird vestigial twin the Sony Spider-Man cinematic universe can be felt. That Morbius is a Spider-Man villain is one thing, but he's not the first to get his own movie. The Punisher and Venom have both had not just films but sequels, even reboots. Morbius hit pages in 1971, so for a 50th anniversary this is less golden than a scraped barrel. That's 50 years in which they've had four or five attempts at Spider-Man, four at The Punisher including the TV series, and I'm not even touching on animation. Not least because animation comes from the notion of giving something life, and for all that this is a film that occasionally twitches this feels soulless not through necromancy but the darker art of accountancy.

Those others' origin as antagonists means that their enemies fall into the Waluigi trap, required to be the opposites of opposites. Spider-Man is mentioned in Morbius, but after Venom - indeed, though there's a few Daily Bugle front pages we never see J Jonah Jameson crow-barring in blame for the web-slinging menace. How Morbius knows who Venom is might require some multiversal magic but it's easy to find oneself past caring. There's a Porsche not an Audi, there's a repeated shot of a fridge for Monster energy drink. There's a mention of a chalkboard of 'smart skin' but I can't tell if that's a product upgrade for the Ozobot Evo or a reference to DC hero Bulleteer. That Venom mention comes after seeing a clip from Flying Guillotines 2. I'm not going to say that shopping for that kung fu film would be more entertaining than Morbius, but whether you bought it or not it would reach a conclusion.

I can't remember if it had jokes. I mean, it might have, but I'm not convinced any landed. "You don't want to see me when I'm hungry" might have demonstrated intent, but the closest this film came to timing was repeatedly making me want to look at my watch. At one point someone says "I hope the food is better here" but like single serving cheese this is post-processed to plasticity. Potentially poignant moments are undercut. Corridors have lighting schemes that even Raimi might balk at. A shot suggests a character had an artificial limb which might have been something that was meant to have mattered, but much like a lot of the aerial adventuring feels weightless.

There are changes made from the comics, which is fair enough. They sort of extend to a form of chiropteral telekinesis (bat bullets) and flying sequences that feel less convincing than those of Donner's Superman. That's even with the presence of Tokyo's Revenge song Clark Kent. Slow motion sequences recall The Matrix, but even its various flying scenes felt more grounded in reality. There are nearer antagonists, an investigatory duo who are sometimes referred to as agents and sometimes as detectives, they might be meant to be comic relief. They never show a shield or an acronym, as if they were working for some organisation TBD.

There's an ending, or at least a moment after the climactic fight peters out, but the central to that conflict is at once weirdly intense and bloodless. Then there's a scene that in another film would have been either earlier where it made sense or further into the credits where it didn't matter, but feels here like a badly transplanted appendix. Then there's some credits that feel a bit like Tron, then a return to the character introduced in that scene, and the credits come back and turn into something like lobby music that swells into a Blade Runner by blow and just stops.

In any film franchise there's got to be one that's the least good, and this is it. This feels less like a runt of the litter than a parasite. One where time seems to crawl despite the action, and not with the same satisfaction of Dredd's diegetic Slo-Mo. There's a moment near the end where one character says to another "make it mean something", and unfortunately for all involved it seems that for all the effort expended they did not succeed.

Reviewed on: 05 Apr 2022
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Morbius packshot
Biochemist Michael Morbius tries to cure himself of a rare blood disease, but he inadvertently infects himself with a form of vampirism instead.
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Director: Daniel Espinosa

Writer: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless

Starring: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Tyerese Gibson, Al Madrigal, Michael Keaton, Zaris-Angel Hator

Year: 2022

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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