Buried somewhere in Morbius there is an interesting exploration of character, and certain moments struggle through the morass of cartoon gimmick and special effects obligation, but the film ends up such a bog of shifting efforts that it is genuinely difficult to decide if that makes it worse or better.
The film opens with Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) on an expedition to find some vampire bats and the downright kooky scene of him cutting himself to draw out the swarm sets the stage for everything that follows. There’s a strange pageantry to the helicopter ride, the henchmen, the stilted dialog, and the oddly ritualistic performance of trapping these bats that sends us down a road seemingly offered up by someone who doesn’t particularly like, or understand, comic books.
Having grown up with a debilitating disease, but also a genius, Morbius has spent his life trying to find a way to cure his blood-related illness, and it turns out that vampire bats may be the key. Splicing their DNA to his own (or whatever), Morbius find a cure, but one that comes with the cost of a hunger which seems to render him nearly feral if it isn’t sated.
The true conflict comes when Morbius’ lifelong friend, Milo (Matt Smith), who has the same disease, also takes the serum, but has a very difficult ethical response to the triviality of having to kill people to remain strong.
Leto manages to give what he can to a character, and plot, that aren’t given time to really develop. This is a film that is more interested in making sure there are X minutes of supernatural fights and effects of Morbius’ echolocation powers than actually capitalizing on the themes and moral underpinnings of the situation our “hero” finds himself in. What becomes most curious is the jolting pace that finds every pause either meaninglessly extended or jarringly cut short. If Morbius isn’t in a fight because he’s staring at his abs or bouncing around a room, we have time to watch that, but if some dialog might actually get at his perspective on the true depth of horror he’s in, there is practically a record scratch as we interrupt the lines that are rushed and often a bit garbled in any case.
It becomes almost distracting, especially once Matt Smith truly makes it to the stage, that a film which is an adaptation of something that is already the billionth spin on vampires seems mostly irritated at having to incorporate the slightest tether to human metaphor that is the only reason there are vampire stories to begin with.
Still, the story is in there somewhere and, despite the fact that Smith is a bit stagy and Leto perhaps overly convinces himself this is worthy of the stage, the movie pulls you along and much of the action is a lot of fun. But, as I said, the snippets of a deeper, truly meaningful investigation of Morbius make for a curious experience. His moral dilemma and the torturous circumstances he has created for himself, thrown together with the pure disbelief at his best friend’s decisions, when it all only comes through as a sort of artificial excuse for action, becomes more irritant than driving force. This sets up audiences for the baffling possibility of wanting less, not more, because the film isn’t invested in it anyway.
There’s enough delivery to render it something merely passable, but it should have been a win. The direction feels like the flaw, and that might not be that surprising coming from Daniel Espinosa, the director of the Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga film you don’t know (Safe House), the tepid, critically-panned Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman film you don’t know (Child 44), and the oddly boring space-horror vehicle with Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson that everyone instantly forgot (Life).