Dolls are creepy. Between the lifeless porcelain-eyed gaze and the unnatural permanent smile, it’s no surprise that filmmakers have gotten plenty of mileage from including them in horror movies for decades. The new campy chiller M3GAN combines humankind’s understandable fear of these human-resembling creations with a staple of the sci-fi genre: the distrust of rapidly evolving artificial intelligence. There are family drama elements that don’t pay off quite as well but do underline the cautionary theme of parents allowing technology to raise their kids in their absence. Throw in some satirical jabs at the corporate tech landscape and the ravenous toy market and you have a better-than-average start to the new movie year.
M3GAN follows a recently-orphaned young girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) as she is sent up to Seattle to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who develops toys for fictitious tech brand Funki. Gemma values her independence and devotes all of her time to her job, so it’s enough to say that her opening stretch as Cady’s legal guardian doesn’t get off to the finest start. Desperate to bridge the gap, Gemma builds AI-based doll Model 3 Generative Android (or M3GAN, for short) for Cady as the perfect robotic friend and confidant. M3GAN becomes such an effective caretaker that Gemma pitches it to her boss as the next generation of smart toys but in the process, her cyborg creation develops defense mechanisms that turn from troubling to deadly.
The marketing behind M3GAN has hinged on the uncanny feeling that the titular robot, who is played with CG enhancements by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, is intended to provoke. She doesn’t look like a real girl but her motion is so eerily close to a real person that her mere presence is immediately unsettling. As M3GAN grows smarter and her intentions grow more sinister, she blurs the line further as something that’s able to so thoroughly communicate as if it were human but is able to fight well above its size. As M3GAN reminds us during a lullaby to Cady, she’s a metal-based being and her physical strength is thanks to the alloy frame that Gemma gave her during development. While the physical powers make sense, M3GAN eventually develops technological capabilities — turning off all the alarms in a building instantaneously, for instance — that don’t seem credible within her programmed limitations.
The script from Akela Cooper, who penned the even more over-the-top horror movie Malignant a couple years ago, too often takes shortcuts like this to make the plot run more smoothly. From the outset, it doesn’t really make sense that Gemma’s sister would grant Gemma temporary custody over Cady in the event of her death and it makes less sense that Gemma would follow through with it. It’s credible that Gemma would develop M3GAN to help with Cady, since it’s part of a design she had already been working on, but it’s unrealistic that her co-workers would have time to help her with it when they’re all under a deadline for a completely different project. There’s a boss character played by Ronny Chieng who is woefully underserved by cliché writing that should have been much sharper, given the film’s cheeky touches in other areas.
Director Gerard Johnstone delights in the moments where he can push some of the ridiculous features of these “cutting edge” toys even further into the absurd. M3GAN opens with a cheery ad for PurrPetual Petz, a Funki-branded toy seemingly inspired by Tamagotchi and Furby that actually produces its own waste pellets, for some reason. During a tech demo, M3GAN consoles Cady with a song so saccharine that the musical score actually joins in with her. This is the kind of humor that should have been applied to the corporate subplots but instead, we get a boss grousing about kombucha due to pre-launch nerves and a tangent about his assistant stealing M3GAN prototype files that goes nowhere. M3GAN could benefit from some sharper writing to make it a more satisfying package but as is, it’s a solid addition to the killer doll horror subgenre with some striking social commentary as well.
Score – 3/5
New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks and Mariana Treviño, is a dramedy remake of a 2015 Swedish film about a depressed widow who finds meaning in life anew when a young family moves in across the street from him.
House Party, starring Tosin Cole and Jacob Latimore, is a comedy reboot of the 1990 hit about a high school student who decides to host a house party with his best friend while his parents are away.
Plane, starring Gerard Butler and Mike Colter, is an action thriller about a pilot who finds himself caught in a war zone after he’s forced to land his commercial aircraft during a terrible storm.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup