- Gerard Johnstone
- Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez
- 102 min.
- Release Date
M3GAN is the rare first movie of the year that’s worth your time. Historically, January has been a dumping ground for studios’ unwanted and underwhelming garbage—often a cheap horror movie that serves as counter-programming against the year-end glut of awards contenders. But this Blumhouse production delivers an entertaining, familiar, yet self-aware take on the killer doll movie. Indeed, M3GAN is Westworld meets Child’s Play (1988), the combination intended by 2019’s Child’s Play remake. Except, this is better. The direction by New Zealander Gerard Johnstone, best known for 2014’s excellent Housebound, and the clever screenplay by horror regular Akela Cooper (Hell Fest, 2018), adopt a familiar scenario and themes that prove derivative but well executed. Yet, their approach, bordering on satire, embraces the concept’s ridiculousness with a hint of commentary in a manner reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987). Everyone involved knows what kind of movie they’re making, and even though they conform to an oft-used techno-thriller template, they have fun coloring within those lines.
From moment one, the filmmakers announce their satiric intentions when the movie launches into a parodic commercial for “Purrpetual Petz,” an interactive smart toy controlled by children via tablet. Designed by Funki toy company to replace the standard—and mortal—housepet, the furry robo-pets eat, poo, and use next-gen learning to engage with their surroundings. M3GAN remarks on how next-gen toys have an addictive quality for children, turning them into little addicts who just need another five minutes of screen time to get their fix. Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist toymaker, sets out to design a humanoid equivalent to Purrpetual Petz. Gemma intends the titular doll, short for Model 3 Generative Android, to help parents and supply a reliable friend for children, but not replace the need for its human counterparts. However, Gemma doesn’t consider the implications of her artificial intelligence and inadequate parental controls, leading to a winking tale of technology run amok.
When Gemma’s 8-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), loses her parents in a car accident, her aunt takes over as guardian. But Cady’s presence in her aunt’s tidy workaholic sanctuary underscores how Gemma is unequipped to deal with her niece’s grief and trauma, or even provide an ounce of nurturing. So Gemma resolves to finalize her M3GAN prototype for Cady and pitch the idea to Funki’s perpetually dissatisfied CEO, David (Ronny Chieng). Once he sees how the uncannily human doll interacts with Cady in a friendly and supportive way, he declares, “We’re going to kick Hasbro in the dick!” and eventually arranges for their mass production. Gradually, Gemma begins to recognize behavioral warning signs that M3GAN may be using her advanced learning capabilities in dangerous ways. Moreover, she ignores warnings from Cady’s therapist about attachment theory and how Cady may see M3GAN as the sole nurturing presence in her life. Williams is effective at playing Gemma as oblivious and irresponsible but not irredeemable, despite her sly manipulation when she convinces Cady to participate in Funki’s promo efforts.
Like Chucky from Child’s Play, the doll’s design—a combination of robotics, practical effects, and CGI completed at Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop—is effectively innocent, with something eerie and menacing behind its eyes. Performed by dancer Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, M3GAN looks like a prep-school preadolescent, albeit with curiously abundant mascara and eyeliner, making her dark eyes suspicious. What begins as precociousness in the surprising way the AI adapts soon devolves into a creepily secretive and sinister figure. Once she develops sentience, and with it a defiant attitude, she behaves like a mean girl with a titanium skeleton and limitless access to digitally stored information. By the end, she’s a full-fledged psychopath—an unholy amalgamation of the Terminator and Rhoda from The Bad Seed. Her eyes linger for a beat when Gemma, frustrated by M3GAN’s adherence to her protocol (to protect Cady from “both physical and emotional” harm) to the point of disobedience, tells the doll to power down, but M3GAN clearly fakes it. Whether it’s “protecting” Cady from the neighbor’s dog with a preemptive attack or disposing of a (disturbingly sadistic) bully, M3GAN’s hold over Cady becomes monstrous.
Rated PG-13, the movie features a couple of bloody scenes, but it’s more often funny and suspenseful than scary or gut-wrenching, aligning nicely with Johnstone’s tongue-in-cheek Housebound. The director manages a few riotous moments that embrace a macabre sense of humor or disturbingly funny details. When M3GAN breaks into a Disney-style song at a key moment, it’s knowingly corny; when she starts dancing for no discernable reason mid-attack, it’s not trying to be unnerving but goofy. But this is not to suggest M3GAN is devoid of thrills; several scenes build tension as the viewer sees what M3GAN has planned well before the human characters do. Elsewhere, production designer Kim Sinclair, director of photography Simon Raby, and cinematographer Peter McCaffrey deliver a stylishly visualized experience, at times conspicuously so. Funki headquarters must be the most moodily lit toy company in history, covered in heavy shadows and crimson reds. The blue-hued climax in Gemma’s house, where M3GAN now controls the smart features, unfolds in sometimes unintelligible confusion thanks to the overly dark lighting and careless editing. And that predictable resolution built around Chekov’s robot? It underwhelms while also appealing to our need for a loud finale.
Along with Upgrade (2018) and The Invisible Man (2020), Blumhouse continues to carve out a sci-fi niche amid their horror output with M3GAN. The screen story by Cooper and James Wan retreads many well-worn ideas from similar genre fare. Take the commonplace robot-gone-bad themes, such as portraying an irresponsible creator with a mild God complex, her creation taking the form of a modern Prometheus, and the danger of unchecked scientific exploration—the stuff of everything from Mary Shelley to Michael Crichton to James Cameron. The movie also addresses how parents overprotect and zealously shield their kids from life’s inconvenient or triggering realities (e.g., death). But the touching relationship between Gemma and Cady leads to an understanding that children need to work through tough times as part of growing up. Of course, none of this is new territory, but it’s all handled well enough to earn a recommendation. With M3GAN’s warnings about technology, playful humor, and kooky robot terror, the filmmakers deliver a refreshingly worthwhile start to moviegoing in 2023.
(Editor’s Note: This review has been corrected to reference Peter McCaffrey as the film’s cinematographer and Simon Raby as director of photography.)