In Hollywood, there’s an old saying from screenwriter William Goldman about how “no one knows anything.” However, that’s not always true, because the moment I saw the trailer for M3GAN at CinemaCon in April, I knew it was going to be a hit. Hailing from noted horror producers Jason Blum and James Wan, whose respective companies, Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, are on the precipice of merging, it’s basically a high-tech, gender-swapped Child’s Play, only this time, Chucky isn’t a doll at all, but rather, an android that can replicate voices, unlock cars, read your emails, and manipulate your most dangerous appliances. Basically, this is Annabelle for the digital age.
The title character—a Model-3 Generative Android, hence her name—is four feet tall and if you look at her from far away, she might even pass for a real girl, despite her oversized plastic features. Her design is just realistic enough to fool you at first glance, and yet it maintains an unnatural, artificial look that keeps you off-balance… unless you’re “paired” with her.
Such is the case with young Cady (Violet McGraw), who goes off to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) when her parents are killed in a snowy car accident. To say that Gemma is unprepared to care for a child would be an understatement, but in Williams’ hands, that in-over-her-head quality manages to be strangely relatable. After all, what single career woman would be ready to accept that kind of lifelong responsibility on a whim in the event of a family emergency?
Gemma is ill-equipped to be a parent largely because she’s a robotics engineer who can’t program Cady’s emotions. Yes, as much as M3GAN is a commentary on the dangerous allure of A.I., it’s also a sharp commentary on modern parenting, in which screentime is often substituted for family time as parents allow screens to raise their children because they’re too busy working. When they were alive, Cady’s parents regulated her screen time, but just as screens can be addictive, so can friendship.
With work piling up and a deadline looming, Gemma sure wishes someone else could look after Cady. But if you’re an engineer who can’t find good help… you can just make it! And so Gemma stretches some silicon skin over a metallic skeleton, uploads a self-learning artificial intelligence program, and presto, M3GAN is born. She’s played with a creepy menace by Amie Donald and voiced by an innocent-sounding Jenna Davis, who doesn’t need to have the gravelly voice of, say, Brad Dourif, to create a memorable villain. In fact, a vicious killer with the bubbly voice of a teenage girl might even be creepier. Working in tandem with the film’s SFX and VFX teams, Donald and Davis do a commendable job of bringing M3GAN to life.
It’s no wonder that Cady quickly strikes up a connection with M3GAN, seeing as the film offers the young girl no one else to talk to or in whom to confide. She can’t even play with the toys at Gemma’s house because they’re = collectibles; her makeshift bedroom is drab and uninviting. Rather than build suspense around the question of M3GAN’s autonomy, the script wastes no time letting the audience know that she is, in fact, autonomous, so it’s never a question of whether an evil coder or a cursed chip is responsible for her behavior. She just takes her job as Cady’s protector really, really seriously.
Thankfully, there’s a satirical tone that keeps this fun and light without ever falling into camp, a la screenwriter Akela Cooper’s prior film, Malignant, which was directed by Wan. I couldn’t stand that movie—a cause celebre on Film Twitter—but M3GAN hails from director Gerard Johnstone, who does a better job of honing Cooper’s wackier instincts, as this movie has a good sense of both humor and self-awareness, like when a cop laughs about a boy whose ear was graphically ripped off.
The unfortunate souls who become M3GAN’s victims include a next-door neighbor with an aggressive dog, a teenage bully, and Gemma’s obnoxious boss (Ronny Chieng), who thinks he has stumbled into a toy he can sell for $10,000 a pop. The true genius of M3GAN isn’t just that she’s there for the good times, it’s her intuitive nature and her ability to be the kind of best friend who’s there for the bad times, too. So when all of Gemma’s investors gather for a showcase and are surprised to find Cady in pain, M3GAN rides to the rescue with some supportive and encouraging words, demonstrating wisdom and emotional sensitivity well beyond her years.
The last third of this movie is dedicated to pure mayhem as M3GAN goes berserk, and ostensibly, that’s why we’re all there to watch the movie, though I must say, the first half of the film before M3GAN really starts killing people may be even creepier than the blood-soaked second half. But overall, this movie is a blast that very much delivers on what the ads are selling. It’s one you can laugh at that will also scare you, and it’s almost guaranteed to develop a cult following, especially among younger audiences, given its PG-13 rating.
If I have a complaint about the script, it’s that we don’t get much of a sense of Gemma’s life outside of work—would it have killed the writers to give her a love interest or something —but at least the film wisely avoids sentimentality when it comes time to terminate her own creation. There’s no debate about whether Gemma will pull the plug on her own “baby,” as M3GAN leaves no room for ambiguity.
Likewise, let there be no ambiguity about the fact that there absolutely will be a sequel to M3GAN and I wouldn’t be surprised if one is announced next week once the box office figures are revealed. See this one on opening weekend with a crowd, as horror movies are a communal affair that always plays better on the big screen.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.