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Review

'Morgan' plays like a poor woman's 'Ex Machina'

With her pale, sometimes blood-flecked skin and her wide-set eyes seeming to pool with innocence and menace, Anya Taylor-Joy is fast becoming an avatar of strange, otherworldly beauty in the movies. You may recall her striking performance as a Puritan teenager suspected of devilry in the recent 17th century horror film “The Witch,” and her haunted presence manages to register even within the much more generic sci-fi context of “Morgan,” of which the best that can be said is that it’s bland enough to serve as a kind of palate cleanser at the end of a long and punishing moviegoing summer.

Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Luke Scott (son of Ridley, who produced), the movie might have seemed a bit fresher if it weren’t arriving in theaters a year after “Ex Machina,” Alex Garland’s vastly richer reworking of the Frankenstein myth. Like that earlier movie, only with far less finesse, “Morgan” is set entirely at a remote scientific enclave where a remarkable new life form has come into being, setting off a wave of ethical questions that can only be answered by a whirlwind of on-screen violence.

This time, however, the specimen under scrutiny isn’t a shapely robot but rather a genetically engineered superhuman named Morgan (Taylor-Joy), who mopes about in a nondescript gray hoodie like an angst-ridden teenager (she’s actually just 5 in human years). Kept under close watch in a glass enclosure, she has wowed her creators with her incredible physical and intellectual development, though her emotional patterns — veering from sweet, childlike empathy to unpredictable spasms of violence — are harder to nail down.

Our entry into this top-secret project is facilitated by a “corporate risk-management consultant” named Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), who has arrived at the compound to reassess Morgan’s long-term viability after one of those violent episodes. The movie’s signature shot frames Morgan and Lee from opposite sides of a glass partition, their gauzy reflections superimposed over each other as they talk. (A flashing “DUALISM!” sign might have been nearly as subtle.)

While the scientists see Morgan as family and treat her accordingly, Lee views her with ruthless detachment as a product, a lab rat, something to be scrutinized without emotion and terminated if necessary. To describe Lee as no-nonsense would be an understatement almost as severe as the woman herself: With her colorless blouses and curt, unsmiling demeanor, she is virtually a parody of joyless hyper-competence.

Something similar could be said about “Morgan,” which itself feels as though it had been synthesized in a laboratory, then given an extra coat of gloss to cover up the fact that it consists mostly of spare parts. Very little here registers as more than cliché: There’s the officious lead scientist (Toby Jones) who is loath to let years of hard work go down the tube — a sentiment shared to some extent by the more even-keeled Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh), who talks about hoping to avoid another Helsinki (apparently the Chernobyl of biotech tragedies).

There’s also a hot-headed young psychoanalyst named Amy who shares an unusually intense bond with Morgan. (She’s played by the excellent Rose Leslie of “Game of Thrones” fame; I kept waiting for her to say “You know nothing, Lee Weathers.”) In similar fashion, a behavioral psychiatrist, Kathy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), insists on protecting Morgan despite having been the victim of that earlier “accident.” What’s a gouged-out eye or two between friends?

By the time Paul Giamatti turns up as a loathsome corporate psychologist who, like Lee, has been sent in to evaluate the situation in the most brutally honest terms, you may start to wonder when the last time an ensemble this good was placed in service of a script this thin. Giamatti’s one big scene is a chillingly played knockout — the only one like it in the film — but this is an unusually, even wastefully impressive set of actors for a movie that warns you not to get attached to any of them.

The resources to which Scott has been granted access — evident in the slick sheen of Mark Patten’s cinematography and the eerie accompaniment of Max Richter’s score — feel similarly disproportionate to the material, though no amount of technique can overcome the basic failure of imagination that is the movie’s climactic bloodbath. “Morgan” pretends to grope at provocative ideas and dichotomies — the line between responsibility and recklessness, between humanity and monstrosity — but the real tension at work here is of an altogether more banal sort: A movie ostensibly about the creation of life devolves into just another frenzied spectacle of death.

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‘Morgan’

MPAA rating: R, for brutal violence and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: In general release

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