Shadow of the Vampire – Morbius (2022)

So, while I wait for some more widespread options to become available, I had a Tuesday open and I finally decided to bite the bullet on Morbius. While I can see why it got ripped by critics and fans, there were some positives to take away too. 

Doctor Michael Morbius suffers from a rare, debilitating, and conveniently unnamed, blood disease. So, naturally, he dedicates his life to finding a cure and the only logical thing left to do is start splicing human and bat DNA, right? Well, that experimentation turns the doctor into The Living Vampire. 

Human trials commence

It’s difficult to tell what director Daniel Espinosa was going for with this movie, in terms of cultivating any particular feeling. It tried to dip its fangs into so many different tones but, as a result, had difficulting honing in on any one of those. I read an interview with him in response to the bad press and he genuinely seems to care about improving as a filmmaker. While he also said he wanted to make a movie that is separate from what’s going on in other Marvel movies, that’s not a concept that jives with the current model and I’m guessing the studio didn’t like that which is why there’s a sloppily tied in cameo and a post-credits scene that felt very much thrown in at last minute. Half-measures don’t work and this was a good example of why. 

Daniel Espinosa has a good eye for filmmaking

Because the tone is all over the place, it’s very tough to stay in the moment. We start the movie in a Costa Rican jungle (IIRC) where, with zero introduction, we see a man dressed in black, on crutches, limping his way to the entrance of a bat cave. He then bleeds himself with a knife that he buys off an armed guard in exchange for a wad of cash and a flippant remark (he could have just borrowed the knife, why the wad of cash?). Bats swarm and carry us back, 25 years earlier to Michael’s childhood where they demonstrate that his real superpower is being able to just make machines do whatever he wants. No explanation, no backstory, just saves a kid’s life by fixing a complex machine with a spring from a pen…okay. Some exposition from the attending physician, just to make sure the audience knows the previous scene means Michael is a genius. Then we’re off to attend the Nobel ceremony, back in the present day, where Michael is now a world-renowned biochemist…not a mechanical engineer? 

That’s just a glimpse of the kind of movie we’re dealing and right out of the box, I’m seeing some serious storytelling issues. The screen story and screenplay came from Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (Gods of Egypt, The Last Witch Hunter). There’s a lot of stuff that happens between the finished screenplay and what winds up on the screen, but I can only call it how I see it. There are only two characters that have any personality and the rest is kind of just superficial “Sciency” exposition to get that point across and some admittedly very cool visual effects shots. It’s as if the majority of the movie is filler to get from one action scene to the next.

Dr. Michael Morbius, before and after experimental gene therapy

That might have even worked well enough, but Jared Leto plays this character too straightforwardly. By the way, for a guy with a horrible blood disease that’s been killing him for like 40-years, he has an amazing and healthy head of hair. There is some humor written into him, but Leto is so serious in his delivery that it sort of glances right off the surface. Something about the majority of the performance seemed mostly devoid of personality and Dr. Morbius didn’t come across as sympathetic as he should have. 

Matt Smith, on the other hand, navigates the ends of his character much more adeptly. Michael’s lifelong friend, Milo/Lucian, who also suffers from the same blood disease is the polar opposite. Smith is very emotive and when he’s having fun, the whole audience is having fun with him. Al Madrigal is the other character who has rhythm. His sarcasm as agent Rodriguez works well paired with the straight-laced Simon Stroud, played by Tyrese Gibson.

Jared Harris is a great actor whose presence signals a certain type of reverence and dignity on-screen, and that’s consistent here, but his character was mostly wasted here. Adria Arjona got saddled with a similar burden, cast as Martine Bancroft. An associate of Michael’s who, surprise, is the love interest. It’s a pretty one-note character and she deserved better but was mostly there to move the plot along. 

The design was there to support a horror film, but that is about as far as it went

Even seeing this movie tagged as “horror” is surprising. It’s not a horror film just because it has scary-looking vampires, even though it isn’t hard to see that it wanted to pull from that genre. It could have been a solid horror movie, just not with the setup the filmmakers ultimately went with, and making it PG-13 put some firm limitations on that. While I think “horror” is a generous description, there was some craft filmmaking on display. 

This scene is a drastic departure from the tone that had just been set

The cargo ship scene is shot like a horror film and utilizes some solid camera work, lighting, and punches all that up with visual effects. Perhaps a little too much too early, but that scene should have been the tone for the whole movie…right up until the shirtless Leto strut moment. There is the very blatant rip-off of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as well, where Leto stands in the middle of a swarm of circling bats and embraces it. Hell, even the music used there is very much designed to evoke that connection.

An example of what sound looks like in the world of Morbius

Anyway, the VFX design of the echolocation sequences is awesome. Maybe even a little too awesome because it became a crutch. I understand wanting to showcase the visual aesthetic, but when you’ve got Leto and Smith it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to digitize them. Leto pushed for that approach over prosthetics which did create some freedom at times but also took the humanity out of the performers when the film needs it the most. The final 10-15 minutes are mostly just a blizzard of CGI where it’s tough to even tell what’s happening other than we know there’s a fight.

My expectations were pretty low heading in, so I wasn’t blindsided and as a result, I was able to enjoy myself just fine. Word of mouth really hurt this movie and it wasn’t the juggernaut Sony was hoping to add to its Marvel universe, but it was successful and there’s probably enough there to justify its place in the grand scheme. 

Recommendation: If you like the Sony Spider-Verse, it’s probably worth checking out because I imagine it will come together down the line. Otherwise, see it for Matt Smith and the cool visuals, and don’t overthink it.

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