Silly and smart is a hard line for a film to walk. If it leans too far one way, the goofiness undercuts anything intelligent that the filmmakers are trying to say; if it leans too far the other way, it can feel pretentious to an audience that is just looking for a good time at the movies. In that respect, Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN is a talented tightrope performer. Based on a screenplay by Akela Cooper, who wowed horror fans in 2021 with her script for James Wan’s Malignant, the new genre feature has commentary to dispense in regards to modern child rearing and its relationship with technology, but it’s also a crowd-pleaser as the latest entry in the cinematic legacy of killer dolls.
With clever plotting and sharp dialogue meeting amazing design and effects in bringing to life the titular character, M3GAN has a white-knuckle grasp on what it is, and it’s going to make movie-goers giddy. There is a significant hindrance in play due to the PG-13 approach, as its bloodlessness prevents it from executing greater escalation in the third act, but that missed opportunity doesn’t overshadow all of the thrills and grins that the film inspires.
Further bolstering her horror resume after Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, Allison Williams stars as Gemma – a genius roboticist working for a popular toy company who becomes an overnight parental figure to her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), after her sister and brother-in-law die in a car crash. Being single and work obsessed, she’s not entirely equipped for the job, but the ace up her sleeve is her latest invention: the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short.
As designed, M3GAN is a life-like doll (or uncanny valley nightmare, depending on your perspective), and programmed with powerful and advanced artificial intelligence that drives her to do whatever is necessary for the well-being of the child with whom she is linked. This makes the android exceptionally useful for Gemma, who passes off parenting responsibilities to her creation amidst Cady’s recovery from the trauma of losing her parents. But there are serious consequences as the girl grows to see the toy as her primary caregiver, and the relationship combined with updated protocols has the effect of turning M3GAN into an extreme danger.
M3GAN won’t give you nightmares, but it will inspire some chills along with laughter.
M3GAN is the first wide release of 2023, and after 2022 proved to be magnificent for horror, the film is kicking off the new year properly for the genre. It can’t be said to be an experience that will haunt the dreams of any movie-goers not already predisposed to a fear of dolls, but it finds great moments to be effectively chilling. Every member of its audience is going to go in knowing that the eponymous android is eventually going to become a homicidal terror, and there aren’t exactly any big twists that are unleashed, but it finds its way to get under your skin as you can sense M3GAN getting more advanced.
It’s the kind of creepiness that inspires grins and nervous chuckles instead of preparing you for big screams, and that’s wholly intentional; it’s perhaps a step too far to call M3GAN a horror comedy, but there certainly isn’t a fear that laughs are going to undermine the terror. When M3GAN starts to talk back to Gemma aggressively and assert more independence, her sharp personality lowers the temperature of your blood a bit, but simultaneously makes you want to let out an audible, “Oooh” like you’re the member of a talk show audience.
These kinds of moments ultimately balance well with the (albeit limited) pure horror that the film has to dole out. The movie knows when to get seriously scary, and that leads to some of the most memorable sequences – including M3GAN’s encounters with the next door neighbor’s dog and a bully hassling Cady.
Impressive filmmaking techniques do a great job bringing M3GAN to life.
In the world of the film, M3GAN is a technical marvel with a $10,000 retail price, and the way that the character is brought to life presents her as worth every penny. The design is terrific, as her prim and proper appearance (albeit with eerie wide eyes) is contrasted in excellent ways by her disturbing behavior, and the techniques used to animate her are flawless. Puppeteering, visual effects, and a costumed performer (Amie Donald) were used by the production, and they all work together seamlessly to make the android seem like she is both alive and still a toy (the perfect recipe for generating uncanny valley-based unease). On first watch, you can’t fully tell scene to scene how M3GAN is being rendered so lifelike, and it’s wonderfully convincing – and exceptionally important to not take you out of the movie.
A targeted R-rating could have been very useful in the making M3GAN.
With its smart and silly script along with great performances and technical achievements, M3GAN coasts through its first two acts effectively, but it runs into trouble in the third act when everything in the plot is coming to a head. You’re all set and ready for the cute/terrifying doll to go full tilt as a horror villain… but the movie never gets to that point, and there are fingers to be pointed at the decision for the production to target a PG-13 rating. There is certainly escalation in the behavior of the antagonist, but it’s not translated well enough in her actions, with the full extent of her insanity being kept off screen. This is a movie that should have an absolutely wild and bloody finale, and it’s unable to deliver it so that teenagers can purchase tickets to the film without a parent present (and let’s be real: even if it did have an R-rating, those 13-to-17-year-olds interested in seeing it would find a way to get in regardless).
M3GAN isn’t entirely the experience you want it to be, but its best qualities outweigh its faults in reflection. It’s a well-made, fun, and freaky experience, and a solid opening act for the horror movies to come in 2023.