Director Gerard Johnstone and screenwriter Akela Cooper have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks from the very beginning M3GAN, a satirical tale of treacherous technology in which the shocks and scares and even the cautionary notes are not lessened by the enjoyable vein of campy humor. While comparing to the Child’s Play and Annabelle movies seems inevitable, the malevolent agents in those franchises are clearly dolls. The Model 3 Generative Android known as M3GAN, by contrast, is a sufficiently realistic humanoid to be subversive as well as creepy, echoing AI insta-classics like Ex Machina.
Given that horror fans have been among the most reliable demographics to return to the multiplex post-pandemic, Universal should be able to count on a sizable young audience for this cheeky chiller from Blumhouse and James Wan’s Atomic Monster. It won’t hurt that although M3GAN is styled like a ’70s flight attendant, she’s also a quintessential mean girl in the Regina George mold that could fit right into any teen comedy, one whose intelligence you underestimate at your peril.
The Bottom Line
Trouble in toyland.
Right off the bat, the creative team let us know it’s OK to laugh, starting with what could almost be a Saturday Night Live commercial parody about the key advantage of robot pets over actual animals — they don’t die. The product being advertised by the Funki toy company is a PurRpetual Pet, a googly-eyed, troll-like furball that can talk and eat, as well as fart and crap cute pellets.
Ever since 8-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) was sent one of the robo-pets as a birthday gift from her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), her parents fret about the amount of time the girl is spending operating the gadget via her iPad. But their attempt to provide other distractions on a ski trip is cut short by a head-on collision with a snow truck. Gemma is granted temporary protective custody and Cady goes to stay with her aunt in the Seattle suburbs.
Orphaned Cady is understandably traumatized and disinclined to bond. But she sparks up when she sees Gemma’s college robotics project Bruce in action in a brief appearance that serves as foreshadowing for later, when the hulking AI contraption will come in handy.
Coding expert Gemma leads the robotics team at Funki, where pugnacious CEO David (Ronny Chieng) is leaning on them to come up with a cheaper PurRpetual Pet option, since their competitors are undercutting them with ripoff models. David is unimpressed by their expensive side project M3GAN when she malfunctions during a premature demonstration, telling them to do the “cyborg puppet show.” But Gemma, faced with Cady’s sadness and her own lack of parenting skills, plunges ahead, bringing M3GAN home to play. Bad move.
David changes his mind about developing the M3GAN line once he observes the 4-foot doll interacting with Cady. That hilarious scene involves the robot whipping up a spitting-image portrait of Cady with a few swift strokes and just two colors of highlighter pens. “Will it cost more or less than a Tesla?” is David’s only question, before declaring, “We’re gonna kick Hasbro’s dick!”
At first Gemma is oblivious to the dangers of her niece’s new companion. She shrugs off a therapist’s warning about attachment theory, as well as the concerns of her colleague Tess (Jen Van Epps), who reminds her that M3GAN should be a tool to support traditional parenting, not replace it. But M3GAN’s programming is stronger on the constant quest for self-improvement than it is on parental controls, so the doll’s solemn duty to protect Cady from any threat soon yields casualties.
New Zealander Johnstone, who already showed a droll sense of humor in his 2014 debut feature Housebound, strikes an entertaining balance between comedy and carnage in the kills, and knows how to ratchet up suspense while feeding the laughs. Pacing in the early stages could be tighter, but the story builds satisfyingly as M3GAN starts realizing its full potential and Anthony Willis’ score shifts from foreboding mode into full-scale alarm.
Much of the fun comes from M3GAN’s increasing precociousness as she starts questioning Gemma’s authority and showing a hint of resentful glare whenever she’s powered down. Screenwriter Akela Cooper (Malignant, The Nun 2), working from a story she developed with Wan, gives the AI doll the speech patterns of a smartass contemporary teen — icy-cool and with a petulant challenge subtly embedded in every line, growing fiercer once she figures out how to become her own primary user.
The cast, particularly Williams and McGraw as the two principal figures initially on opposite sides of the M3GAN conflict, do everything that is required of them in terms of reacting to the escalating mayhem. But this is a movie in which the deliciously menacing doll steals every scene.
Visual effects work to bring M3GAN to life — done at Peter Jackson’s Weta facilities in NZ — is first-rate. But it would be nothing without the physical embodiment of dance performer Amie Donald and voice work (including some gloriously cheesy songs) of Jenna Davis. M3GAN is fascinating to watch, whether she’s staring out a window with unnerving intent, busting some contortionist moves or simply cocking her head in a sudden tilt that induces both shivers and snickers.
In addition to its commentary on the pervasiveness of technology in modern parenting, the film’s takedown of corporate culture is amusing, with Chieng and Stephane Garneau-Monten as David’s belittled lackey injecting an understated goofiness that doesn’t spare them from harm.
Shuffling the story between the domestic chaos caused by M3GAN and company preparations for her livestream market launch provides narrative texture and allows for some terrific scenes in which the doll goes rogue, making her exit in a conveniently parked sportscar. That’s before things get really gruesome at home, where she makes her presence known to Gemma with a few bars at the piano and later sings a chorus of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” to a panicked Cady.
M3GAN might be too frequently funny to be terrifying, but it’s never too silly to deliver tension and vicious thrills. It seems a safe bet that the killer doll will return, not to mention become an in-demand costume next Halloween.