A walking, talking, living doll turns murder machine in Universal’s latest horror
Dir: Gerard Johnstone. US. 2023. 102mins
Programmed with an impish sense of humour, M3GAN is a familiar killer-doll horror film enlivened by its Verhoeven-esque satirical streak and studied strangeness. As soon as ambitious roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) unveils her eerily lifelike creation — an AI-infused toy designed to be a girl’s best friend — we can safely predict the many ways in which the gadget will go haywire. But director Gerard Johnstone does his best to mitigate the predictability by gently mocking conventions, presenting us with a snarky little super-intelligent machine that’s fully confident in her superiority to her human counterparts. Yet, by unsuccessfully splitting the difference between being frightening and funny, the picture ends up residing in the same bizarre uncanny valley as its creepy title character, proving to be somewhat menacing but also awfully artificial.
M3GAN brings plenty of attitude, but is nonetheless operating on outdated software
Universal debuts M3GAN in the US on January 6, with the UK rollout happening the following Friday. Williams’ connection to Get Out should appeal to horror fans, as will the fact that genre titans Jason Blum and James Wan serve as producers. The marketing has adroitly sold the film’s cheeky spirit, so viewers seeking scares mixed with chuckles might find M3GAN sufficiently diverting.
After her sister and brother-in-law die in a car accident, single workaholic Gemma (Williams) becomes the guardian of their young daughter Cady (Violet McGraw), although without children of her own — or much of a personal life — she struggles to relate to her niece. But as luck would have it, Gemma is employed by a high-tech toy company, and is developing a doll with advanced artificial intelligence designed to be the ideal companion. Named M3GAN, the robot soon builds a rapport with the grieving Cady, even if there are concerns that the doll might go too far to “protect” the girl from anything that might upset her — including Gemma.
Working from a script by Akela Cooper, who developed the story with Wan, Johnstone (Housebound) skewers tech companies and our increasingly automated, AI-controlled lifestyles, lacing his horror sequences with wry one-liners or morbid humour. Even the film’s introduction of M3GAN is meant to balance unease and dark comedy: the doll’s robotic motions are juxtaposed by the disturbingly vibrant voice emanating from her mouth. (Dancer Amie Donald, blended with visual effects and animatronic work, “plays” M3GAN, while actress Jenna Davis voices the character.) Gemma is initially excited about bringing M3GAN to life, her hubris inevitably leading to ruin once she realises that she’s created a monster she can’t control.
On its surface, M3GAN isn’t especially novel, especially once the doll begins to “eliminate” threats to her best friend Cady. (Watch out, obnoxious neighbours, barking dogs and bullying boys.) But what keeps the film intriguing is Johnstone’s sardonic approach, positioning Gemma as a somewhat callous aunt who cares about Cady but is more concerned with furthering her career. This is hardly a complex role but Williams finds little shreds of nuance, giving us a roboticist who lacks much of a human touch, viewing her niece as little more than a guinea pig in this grand AI experiment she’s conducting. It’s ironic that, in some ways, the robot is warmer than the woman who designed her.
While not nearly at the level of Paul Verhoeven’s sharp societal commentary, M3GAN evinces a similarly sardonic amusement at the shallowness and consumerism of the modern world. Johnstone makes these points by placing M3GAN’s sinisterly serene face in the background of shots, which presents a consistent comedic counterpoint to the banal human drama taking place between Gemma and Cady. The snottier M3GAN gets, transforming from sensitive pal to surly tween, the more the film ridicules our slavish, spoiled dependance on technology. It’s not just that this doll becomes a murderous machine — it’s that she acts like such a wilful little brat while doing so.
But because the suspense sequences are geared more to generate laughs than terror, M3GAN’s quirkiness can only take the film so far. There are plenty of ideas at play — the pressure women face to choose between professional success and motherhood, people’s penchant to embrace digital toys rather than face reality — but Johnstone’s cheeky, occasionally knowingly cheesy approach tends to belie what’s otherwise so commonplace about the setup. Whether it’s Geppetto and Pinocchio, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, or 2001’s astronauts and the HAL 9000, the tension between humans and their creations has long been a narrative staple. Much like its side-eyeing toy, M3GAN brings plenty of attitude, but is nonetheless operating on outdated software.
Production company: Atomic Monster
Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures
Producers: Jason Blum, James Wan
Screenplay: Akela Cooper, story by Akela Cooper & James Wan
Cinematography: Peter McCaffrey
Production design: Kim Sinclair
Editing: Jeff McEvoy
Music: Anthony Willis
Main cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez