M3gan is a PG-13 horror release in January, while Avatar Mania is still in full swing. Director Gerard Johnstone doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page as of this typing. Writer Akela Cooper previously brought us the overrated wrecks of Hell Fest and Malignant. Blumhouse has always been more focused on quantity than quality, and producer James Wan has been far less consistent since he parted ways with Leigh Whannell.
On top of all that, we’ve got a premise that’s already been chewed up and spit out with the Child’s Play reboot back in 2019. Everything about this one smelled like a surefire bomb, but there are many reasons why it actually works. Let’s take it from the top.
Our premise begins with Funki, a toy manufacturing conglomerate whose flagship product is an artificially intelligent pet with smartphone app features. Basically, imagine if a Furby was somehow even more hellish. The project is headed up by Gemma (Allison Williams), an engineering genius tasked with developing a cheaper model of the demon pet robot. Understandably, she’d rather put thousands of corporate dollars toward the next breakthrough in sentient consumer electronics.
And then Gemma has to take some time away from work after a couple of tragic deaths in the family.
Enter Cady, played by Violet McGraw, already a horror movie veteran at such a young age under the care of Mike Flanagan. The plot kicks off when Cady and her parents are caught in a horrific car accident, leaving her orphaned. Thus she goes to live with her aunt Gemma, who’s left with no idea how to raise a grieving young girl in totally unfamiliar surroundings even as she’s struggling with the loss of her sister and brother-in-law.
With all of this going on as corporate deadlines loom large, Gemma tries to solve all these problems by immersing herself in her work. Thus she creates the Model 3 Generative Android “M3gan”, played by newcomer Amie Donald with voice work from Jenna Davis and copious effects help from Weta. With this new prototype, Cady has an artificially intelligent doll made specifically to serve as her best friend and most trusted companion.
Naturally, Gemma’s corporate superiors are so impressed by this new prototype that they want to get ahead of the competition and launch the product while it’s still in beta. This goes about as well as you’d expect.
For one thing, it bears mentioning that Cady — as with most kids — is not very good at moderation. Anything she likes, she wants to have all of it and all of the time. Even before the car accident, it was hard enough getting Cady to put down her iPad. So what happens when her new favorite toy is a titanium-built android running on an unpredictable AI that’s still in beta? On a similar note, kids aren’t very good at following instructions or doing what’s in their best interest — if Cady refuses to eat her vegetables, it’s an open and potentially lethal question as to how M3gan will react to that.
Moreover, we can’t forget that preteen kids — most notably Brandon, briefly played by newcomer Jack Cassidy — can be bullying little shits. What happens when such a brat is given free and total access to a goddamn pint-size Terminator? Even worse, what happens when such a brat is stupid and vindictive enough to try and provoke said pint-size Terminator?
What might be worst of all, consider that M3gan was herself made in imitation of preteen girls like Cady. Therefore, M3gan is every bit as addicted to the internet as Cady, but M3gan’s addiction is multiplied by instantaneous access to literally anything with an online connection. While Cady is prone to violent mood swings and an aversion to moderation on her way toward figuring herself out, M3gan is going through all of the same while everyone around her is justifiably far more afraid of what could potentially happen if the experimental android flies off the rails.
All of this was more or less touched upon in Child’s Play (2019). However, that movie was much more focused on the capitalist aspect of nu-Chucky and the grotesque implications of children being raised by soulless corporations dressed up as colorful mascots. While that’s certainly a factor here, it’s considerably less of an issue given that the incomplete M3gan is still more Gemma’s pet project and less a polished mass-produced drone.
This movie puts a strong emphasis on the deeply personal connection between the Gemma-Cady-M3gan triad, which is easily the most important reason why this movie succeeds. On one level, this movie is about Gemma trying to raise Cady (the surrogate child she never asked for) while also “raising” M3gan (the child figure that was her lifelong dream to create). Gemma fails at both in different ways, and so much of the movie is about her coming to grips with those failures.
To wit, Gemma created M3gan with the stated goal of making sure that Cady and kids like her would never have to be alone. To be sure that such kids would be safe and happy all of the time. But kids have to outgrow their toys eventually (see also: Toy Story 3), and Gemma never thought of any long-term plan beyond the primary user M3gan is irrevocably paired to. Thus either Cady will be so developmentally stunted that she’ll be dependent on her emotional support droid her entire life; or Cady will finally get to a point where she no longer needs M3gan, thus the volatile sentient murder-bot is left abandoned and neglected without the human that is her sole reason to exist.
More to the point, whether she’s Cady’s friend or Gemma’s project, M3gan is a distraction for the both of them. In their own ways, both of them are addicted to M3gan because neither one of them wants to deal with their grief. As both characters develop, they come to accept that feeling deep-seated emotional pain is not only a healthy emotional response to such horrible trauma, but also a necessary part of moving past it.
Of course the film talks about how anything virtual is an unhealthy substitution for anything real — that’s a given in any sci-fi story about AI, VR, social media, etc. We’ve seen far too many movies come off as overly reactionary and brain-dead for taking this stance. Not only do these filmmakers portray the topic as if they have some plausible idea what they’re talking about, but they dovetailed the topic with themes of trauma and acceptance and moving on after deaths of loved ones. Even better, because M3gan’s creator and her playmate are both grieving the same event, it ties their development arcs together beautifully. This whole plot and premise are elegantly crafted.
There’s a genuine beating heart to this movie, which nicely helps to balance out the horror element. Granted, this is a PG-13 movie, so it’s not like bloody and spectacular kills were ever going to be a huge selling point. Yet the film gets away with relatively bloodless kills for a few reasons.
For one thing, a good chunk of the violence in this film — especially in the third act — is committed against robots. Thus we get our gruesome kills and mutilations in a way that the MPAA is more lenient with. For another thing, it’s creepy enough that M3gan is our slasher for the evening. Her uncannily smooth movements and her lilting robo-voice are enough to make literally anything she does just a little bit more creepy, most especially when she means to be terrifying. I need hardly add that each time this AI takes another step toward unhinged homicidal mania, that in itself is sufficient cause for pants-shitting terror.
Another crucial factor is that with very few exceptions, all of M3gan’s victims are hate sinks. I applaud the filmmakers for crafting hapless victims just barely nuanced enough to be recognizable as actual human beings, but still hateful enough that I got a perverse thrill out of watching them get their violent comeuppance. In point of fact, their approach was so effective that I actually cheered when the dog died. (CONTENT WARNING.)
I know that will be enough to turn a lot of viewers away, and justifiably so. If I’m being entirely honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone getting upset with me personally because I was happy to see a dog get killed off in a movie. (As a reminder, I vocally objected to a cat getting killed off in last year’s Firestarter remake.) But M3gan kills a dog in this movie, and I’m sorry, but the way the filmmakers set this whole thing up, the dog had it coming.
And then of course we have the comic relief. Ronny Chieng is easily the most prominent comic relief character, playing Gemma’s pompous and self-absorbed boss, alongside Stephane Garceau-Monten in the role of Chieng’s lickspittle. We’ve also got Jen Van Epps and Brian Jordan Alvarez playing Gemma’s coworkers, both of whom are brilliant engineering minds sadly made to look like idiots because they’re poor at dealing with the corporate overlords and even more clueless at dealing with all the unforeseen challenges posed by M3gan.
Which brings me to what may be the most effective source of comic relief in the picture: M3gan herself. What we’ve got here is an artificially intelligent black box — such that we can never tell exactly what she’s thinking at any given time — arrogantly confident in the infallibility of her own dispassionate logic, yet she’s programmed to mimic the attitude and lingo of a preteen girl. It’s like if HAL 9000 spoke like Meghan Trainor. This darkly comical aspect shouldn’t work, yet the filmmakers play it so perfectly straight that it works disturbingly well.
(Side note: To address the obvious comparison, imagine the condescending attitude of GLaDOS, delivered with about half the snark.)
So are there any nitpicks? Well, I was rather disappointed with the corporate espionage subplot that turned out to be a useless red herring. While I appreciate that Cady’s single-minded obsession with M3gan is crucial to the premise and the character’s development, there were a few louder moments that got particularly grating. Also, I feel it bears repeating that many horror fans may be put off by the bloodless PG-13 kills, and a great many decent human beings may rightly call it a dealbreaker that the dog dies. (Though trust me, this particular dog is worth an exception to the rule.)
Your mileage may vary with regards to the needle-drops and the various songs invoked by M3gan to set whatever mood she wants in the moment. Personally, I can get behind including Sia’s “Titanium”, but leaving out Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” was an unacceptably wasted opportunity. Somebody please put together that FMV, this needs to happen.
But more than all of that, I take issue with how the film glosses over the question of liability. If an artificially intelligent machine is involved in some catastrophic mishap, who is legally and ethically culpable? How much blame rests with the user, the machine, the corporation that made the machine, the engineers who programmed the machine, and so on? That’s a hot-button topic we still don’t have a clear answer or protocol for, and it’s especially relevant in this film about a sentient robot with a body count. I’m a little bit aggravated that the film stops just shy of going there.
On the other hand, the filmmakers are clearly more concerned with examining the use of toys and possessions and capitalist trappings to dull the pains and traumas of the real world. There isn’t a whole lot of room in the movie for both discussions, and the film does a damn good job exploring the more personal aspect, which is why I’m not calling this a dealbreaker.
And anyway, the ending leaves the door wide open for a sequel. Leaving such questions until after the dust of the first movie has settled would certainly make more sense, so I guess we’ll see what happens.
I want to be careful not to overhype M3gan. It doesn’t do anything new in terms of horror, it doesn’t build some huge epic world, and it’s far too early to say that this is the next great genre franchise. But in terms of a tight 100-minute sci-fi slasher romp, it works superbly well. I need hardly add that as a PG-13 horror film released in fucking January, it’s miracle enough that this one is even watchable. Yet the horror, the comedy, the capitalist satire, and the more heartfelt moments are not only effective, but delivered with a pervasive and finely-balanced undertone of creepiness throughout.
We’ve seen a great many films about the dangers of AI and addiction to the virtual, but the film’s singular focus on moving past family trauma — and the lead actors’ solid portrayal of the same — makes this particular sci-fi theme heartfelt and intelligent like I haven’t seen anywhere else in recent memory. I’m more than happy to give this one a recommendation.