The first new film of a calendar year, the first thing audiences may catch in that figurative January truck stop will often bear the potential to set the tone for the eleven months to follow. Or, at minimum, leave an impression to whet short term appetites. Last year, we had a mildly amusing, ultimately unmemorable action feature to restart the cycle. The 355 couldn’t leave anything but mild indifference in its wake. What Universal is doing in the same slot this time around manages to achieve those two thresholds, and continue an eclectic run of purely bonkers, somewhat original, genre-laden risks. The type to invite most audiences along, while staying below the typical mainstream crowd-pleaser norm. Even from what little I remember of the marketing, M3GAN would be that film.
A pure microcosm of middle fingers to your typical slice of ironic science-fiction horror comedy, M3GAN treats the well-regarded Child’s Play dynamic (the 2019 version in particular) like it were an episode of Jordan Peele’s egregiously short-lived Twilight Zone series. Sinister, but not shy to relate to modern trends. And that does include the boon of artificial intelligence. There must always be caution when sentience turns unhinged. Something far from the mind of toy designer Gemma James (Alison Williams). In her spare time, she’s a self-confessed genius with robotics. On the clock, her potential is stifled leading a team at a Seattle-based outfit keen on staying competitive and low on costs, per honcho David’s (a comically vindictive Ronny Chieng) regime.
A wrench throws everything off its axis when Gemma takes in her recently orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw), her parents killed in a snowy car crash. Immediately, she proves to herself how out of depth she is to raise a kid, but sticks through. In no time, the duo find an avenue of bonding in crafting and testing a life-like learning bot named M3GAN (dually performed by Jenna Davis and Amie Donald). She is described as a Model-3 Generative Android, a modern best friend for the youths and ally for the parents. It’s enough of a hit to company bosses that it warrants fast-tracking for a publicized pre-holiday launch, costing $10k per unit. However, in the days leading up to the doll’s unveiling, with Cady confiding to M3GAN as a means of coping with loss, self-awareness hits hyperdrive with the new friend maiming and harming in the name of protection.
The idea of a killer doll movie is far from new; co-producer/writer James Wan tackled the trope once before with his haunting Annabelle. As he, along with fellow scribe Akela Cooper (Malignant) and director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) approach it, M3GAN does look past the fear of retreading with a nascent flair. A tonal footprint brimming with uncertainty until after a slow first act, admittedly overcompensating with flourishes of dark humor. Its limits aren’t needlessly stretched, however, needing little blood, bite, or bark (despite a scruffy neighbor’s dog and his owner causing fleeting unrest) to convey robot uprising in suburban calm. The very moment this android’s full capabilities are introduced, the ride hits its highest gear.
What would’ve been a deadly sinister piece of horror, especially under Wan’s guidance, is dialed back a few notches to sustain a hearty PG-13, bloodshed handled with utter silliness. Not necessarily a bad thing, with its biting satire of both the commercial toy industry and children’s tech overall (along with the limits of screen time) aided by an ironic, unserious lens. Johnstone sees no ardent difficulty to keep the humor light and candid, even musical in places by way of a Sia song for a lullaby, an original tune for consolation, or the graceful moves of a TikTok dance. All of this as the looming threat of terror plays backseat driver without needing to adhere to existing franchise boundaries. M3GAN’s no Chucky, nor does she need to bear similarity. She’s her own unique entity, unhindered by control, poised to guard on first instinct.
The lengths Wan and Cooper hyperextend the doll’s screen mileage go without understatement, they are nearly insane, though still with a level head. Modern technology in need of human reinforcement. The fictional idea is well formed, reality has yet to catch up, nor do I feel it ever could. How both Donald (physicality) and Davis (voice) express that defiance makes it an easy reminder why human actions may never be completely replicated in AI, try as one might. The duo fulfill endless conviction in bending the rulebook to an L-shape, fully eager to play, fight, and especially emote. Her sisterly bonding with McGraw is refreshingly genuine, never static or uptight. And Williams, credited as an exec producer, is quick to regain her footing on a big screen level, pleasingly neutral with flailing bursts of logic to balance the film’s rooted insanity. Something needs to keep M3GAN’s absurdist activities grounded; Williams masters that idea instantaneously.
Quite coolly does Johnstone stride through each bone-chilling hallmark on M3GAN’s evolution of protective acuity, treating set pieces and props with ready flexibility. Anything the doll uses is purposeful, be it a nail gun or fisticuffs with a school bully. How he stages all these nimble, reflexive actions matches that position. And how every plan of attack, comic beat, or aspect of familial weakness is spliced together, at the hands of rapid-fire editor Jeff McEvoy (Nerve), it is all essential to keeping tempo and mood in finite sync. Despite the fact reshoots were undertaken to scale back that violent energy, all manner of macabre disposition stays in place. Albeit, family-friendly to a fault; don’t take elementary schoolers to this feature, they’ll be terrified regardless.
Bridging that once unspoken gap between business tool and beacon of personal friendship without hinging on demonic territory, M3GAN finds her notch in the pantheon of cinema’s great “toys gone amok.” Rejuvenated by its penchant for AI-related carnage, a fresh trail is blazed, even if it leans on the silly versus the savage. Easy enough to find both, though when aiming to please all quadrants, only so much can be snuck in. Most of the latter’s best used in the final
Act, when restrictions disappear, and emotional impulses take over. For the doll, it’s a need to serve as guard. For Gemma, a desire to make sense of her own creation. And for Cady, it’s an escape from tragedy. I do wish Cooper had delved more into the occupancy of grief in one’s mind. Though, as it stands, M3GAN covers some interesting sectors of sci-fi storytelling, harmless enough to laugh in at weary caution, while not shying from how robots are indeed the future. And if this film is any indicator of where the year will go, we’re in for plenty of scary hysterics along the way. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
M3GAN is currently playing in theaters; rated PG-13 for terror, some strong language, a suggestive reference, and violent content; 102 minutes.