Knowingly self-aware and silly, but boasting a fair bit of wit and ingenuity, the horror comedy M3GAN makes the most of a familiar premise. On the surface, M3GAN – which stands for Model 3 Generative Android, if you care – looks like another riff on the killer doll come to life scenario from Child’s Play or the unstoppable androids of the Terminator franchise dressed up as an eerie, dead eyed child. In reality, the cultural touchstones of M3GAN are a lot more fun and silly, hearkening back to the long lost cycle of “deadly protector” films that were prevalent in the 80s and 90s, like Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend and George Romero’s Monkey Shines, or the killer cyborg dog movie Man’s Best Friend; films where someone creates something that’s supposed to make a traumatic life easier, but instead causes death and chaos. Take all of that, mix in a dash of RoboCop’s anti-capitalist sentiment, and you have a recipe for a heck of a good time… provided that you know this is all meant to be silly going in.
Following the death of her sister and brother-in-law in a car accident, robotics engineer and toy inventor Gemma (Allison Williams) becomes the legal guardian of her distraught and grieving niece, Cady (Violet McGraw). Ill equipped to deal with caring for the life of another, Gemma struggles to connect to Cady, until she has a brainstorm. Gemma is going to use her niece to test out her greatest invention to date: a very expensive robotic “toy” capable of spontaneous response and learning about their users in a bid to become the ideal best friend and surrogate parent. M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) instantly bonds with Cady. The kid couldn’t be happier, and Gemma’s out-to-lunch boss (Ronnie Chieng) couldn’t be more stoked to rush into production. There’s only one major flaw in M3GAN’s design: the robot’s desire to learn and grow leads it down some dark places in a search for knowledge, kicking it’s compulsion to keep Cady safe from harm into deadly overdrive.
If you don’t know going into M3GAN that this is supposed to be a funny B-movie with the occasional jump scare or flurry of gore, the hilarious and purposefully off putting fake commercial that opens up the latest from New Zealander director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) should set things straight. From that point, viewers will either ease gently into the silliness or be perplexed as to why this is so purposefully goofy. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially those who like their horror on the more terrifying or brainy side of things. But the cast and everyone else involved with the production of M3GAN is fully on board with the tone being set by Johnstone and the writing team of Akela Cooper and James Wan.
Screenwriter Cooper and horror/blockbuster filmmaker/producer Wan (who gets a story credit here) most recently collaborated on the similarly toned genre blast Malignant last year, and the results are quite similar in their effectiveness and pacing. Much like Malignant (which is also set in Seattle, meaning the films probably operate in the same universe, which is a hoot to think about), M3GAN is a masterclass in how to make an audience continue to invest in a high concept, hight camp premise that takes awhile to genuinely hit its stride. The increasingly malevolent robot is always creepy to look at, but never flips the switch to full evil until past the halfway point of the movie. (And even then, the film’s push to get a PG-13 rating to draw the most eyes possible does reduce some potentially gnarly looking kills to quick cutaways, which is a shame.) Johnstone might not be a stylish filmmaker like Wan is, but he’s a solid hand when it comes to making a comedic horror picture.
The lightness of tone is matched nicely by the fact that M3GAN is smarter than it lets on. Amid all the admitted TikTok and meme baiting of certain scenes (the killer cyborg has some killer vocals and dance moves), there’s a poignant and pointed look at the nature of attachment. The fraught aunt-niece dynamic is touching and lovingly realized from perspectives that feel fresh: a young woman who needs to learn how to care about more than her career and a kid who uses technology as a means to escape the harsh truths of the world. Our collective desire to disassociate from reality with electronic devices designed to make life more convenient comes under a microscope in M3GAN. Sure, some of these jokes are easy ones to make, but they’re messages that viewers might better receive if someone is able to make them laugh about it.
In a strange way, M3GAN is a bit of a trojan horse: a seemingly dumb movie that’s still might be smart enough to make some people think about what it’s actually trying to say. But if you don’t want that, there are plenty of cheer worthy moments of dumb people getting absolutely owned by a kiddie toy, inventive death scenes, cursing children, gleeful misanthropy, snappy one liners, and a great bit involving a power washer. I’m not sure what more you need from a horror movie opening at the start of January.
M3GAN opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, January 6. 2023.
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