A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own.
January is widely considered the month when distributors quietly release disreputable offerings into a bleak theatrical landscape. Hollywood uses it as an opportunity to make quick cash while critics and audiences are distracted by the awards season. Everything from Hostel (2005), Underworld: Awakening (2012), and Split (2016) briefly dominated multiplexes during the winter months. However, that may change this year with the latest offering from Blumhouse Productions. After one of the most successful viral marketing campaigns of recent years, M3GAN danced, twirled, and cartwheeled her way into horror fandom. Conceptualised by the creators of Malignant (2021), M3GAN packs a surprisingly potent punch while blending horror and humour delightfully.
Cady (Violet McGraw) tragically loses both of her parents following a ski trip accident, leaving her devastated and sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Alison Williams), a robotics engineer for a toy company whose corporate competitors have copied their lucrative robotic pet product. Unbeknownst to her boss (David Chieng), she’s been secretly developing a highly advanced toy called M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android). Built with the latest artificial intelligence technology, the toy is designed to be the perfect companion for a developing child. Gemma introduces her grieving niece to M3GAN and they soon become inseparable. The android is programmed to protect Cady both psychologically and physically and they bond faster than anyone expected. However, following a series of suspicious incidents, Gemma begins to suspect that her creation may actually be a threat…
After terrifying audiences in Get Out (2017) and The Perfection (2018), Alison Williams successfully transitions into millennial Scream Queen territory here. She’s utterly convincing as the overworked and undervalued roboticist Gemma. Even though she wants to live up to her late sister’s wishes, she falls prey to the insidious temptation to distract her niece instead of raising her. Her sympathetic performance solidly grounds the emotional drama within this dystopian premise. Although her unnervingly calm exterior suggests otherwise, she completely sells the struggle and frustration of her newfound parental responsibility.
Additionally, Violet McGraw (Black Widow) delivers an exceptional performance as Cady. She perfectly encapsulates the childlike wonder her character requires when she “pairs” with her new friend. Her timid demeanour displays the emotional trauma one might expect from a child mourning their parents. The young actress convincingly showcases a range of complex emotions from anxiety to anger and sadness and frustration. Both Williams and McGraw do an admirable job of bringing emotion and genuine tragedy to their characters.
Praise must also be delivered for the gleefully twisted antagonist, M3GAN. The small wonder with a titanium heart is a marvellous creation with electrifying charisma. Voice actress Jenna Davis gives the character malice hidden behind her perfectly plump lips and saccharine mechanical eyes. As the story progresses she perfectly vacillates between disarmingly sweet and devastatingly manipulative. Most of the fun derives from M3GAN’s increasing precociousness as she nonchalantly expresses enthusiasm in an acerbic manner that borderlines sarcasm. Like a combination of HAL 9000 and Regina George, her personality is irresistibly entertaining and maintains an element of surprise. Her face is an eerie combination of animatronics, puppetry, and digital VFX. However, it’s Annie Donald’s (Sweet Tooth) physical performance that truly brings the doll to life. She imbues the character with an unnerving stilted physicality that’s simultaneously natural but slightly too precise to feel authentically childlike. Alternating between charming and violent, a simple glance or head turn feels like an unspoken death sentence. Whether she’s singing a haunting rendition of David Guetta’s “Titanium” or scuttling along the floor like a possessed crab, M3GAN is simultaneously captivating and chilling.
M3GAN doesn’t push the boundaries of horror the way Blumhouse’s previous efforts have during the last decade. However, director Gerald Johnstone (Housebound) delivers a thoroughly enjoyable slice of cheese that’s equal parts campy and unnerving. Comparisons to Child’s Play (2019) and After Yang (2021) are inescapable, but James Wan (Saw) and Akela Cooper’s (Malignant) screenplay reprograms the familiar into something devilishly fun. M3GAN contains all the hallmarks of traditional horror but separates itself by gleefully embracing the satirical mood and outlandish premise. The prologue intelligently establishes the tone early, revealing a hysterical faux advertisement for “Perpetual Pets”. The talking, chirping, farting furry little creatures will keep children constantly engaged with the accompanying smartphone app. They also make better companions than real pets because “they’ll live longer than you”. Johnstone has a firm grasp of the material, and maintaining both horror and comedy is one of his major accomplishments. The director strikes a perfect balance with Wan and Cooper’s pendant for camp humour, ensuring a violent romp with its tongue firmly places in cheek.
Despite the comedic moments sprinkled throughout, Johnstone delivers a prescient commentary on significant topics. Wan and Cooper’s screenplay serves as an allegory surrounding the complexities of childhood trauma and the potential repercussions of offloading parental responsibilities onto babysitting technologies. Although Gemma is technically Cady’s legal guardian, her identity is defined by her ambition and career. She’s completely dependent on technology and lacks the empathy and emotive responses her grieving niece requires. During a particular scene when Cady asks for a bedtime story, her aunt is more attentive to her smartphone which silently downloads an audiobook. Gemma builds M3GAN to assume the role of playmate, teacher, and guardian. When Cady forms an unhealthy attachment to the android, she ultimately pushes away the people who love her. Its territory was previously explored in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986), but Johnstone successfully treats the subject with utmost sincerity. Allusions to limited screen time and attachment theory carry weight and feel incredibly relatable. Without human connection, a child’s cognitive and social development may be affected following a traumatic experience.
Although the viral marketing campaign suggests M3GAN is ostensibly a horror, it’s a relatively bloodless affair. Blumhouse’s commercial decision to saturate the bloodshed may underwhelm fans expecting overtly gratuitous violence. Although the kills seem gruesome, Jeff McEvoy’s (Project Power) surreptitious editing leaves most of the imagery to the audience’s interpretation. Regardless, Johnstone still provides plenty of thrills despite working within the confines of a restricted rating. Despite most of the explicit violence being executed offscreen, the suspense leading up to the bloodshed offers a tantalising sense of dread. Like Michael Myers sturdily stalking Laurie Strode, M3GAN excites the audience with her calm but determined approach. The iconic dance sequence is a sensational example of how Johnstone patiently escalates the tension and delivers satisfying outcomes without being perverse. Admittedly, one does wonder how much more absurd M3GAN could have been if Blumhouse embraced the higher rating. However, the decision to leave some images to the audience’s imagination is arguably more effective than any graphic depiction would have been.
While the story is quite predictable, M3GAN is a massively entertaining horror that will exceed expectations. With a brisk 102-minute runtime, the adequately paced story remains organically funny and unnerving without becoming stale. It’s a difficult balance to sustain but Gerard Johnstone makes it look easy. James Wan and Akela Cooper’s fascinating screenplay explores anxieties about motherhood, grief, and new life adjustments filtered through an intentionally campy lens. Although it’s relatively restrained when it comes to violence, M3GAN is worth putting down your devices for.
USA • 2022 • 102 MINUTES • 2:39:1 • COLOUR • ENGLISH
director: Gerard Johnstone.
writers: Akela Cooper (based on a story by James Wan).
starring: Alison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alveraz & Jen Van Epps.