Following hot on the heels of 5-Cream is M3GAN, the latest bizarro offering from Malignant and Hell Fest co-writer Akela Cooper. Unlike those movies, however, this sci-fi shocker is rated PG-13 (15A in the UK and Ireland), which although it’s certainly not a death knell for horror, will understandably fill certain fans with trepidation. In an interview with Games Radar, director Gerard Johnstone claimed that M3GAN is even scarier following intensive reshoots to secure that all-important, Friday night tween audience. It’s an impressive stance to take and indeed is true of many recent PG-13 fright flicks including, most notably, 2019’s Black Christmas reboot, but Johnstone’s claim is kind of laughable when you watch the finished product. It’s not that M3GAN isn’t entertaining, because it is, but if you’re eagerly anticipating the next Malignant, best to temper your expectations.
The titular robot surely needs no introduction; she’s been all over social media, whether it’s Blumhouse head honcho Jason Blum dressing up as her at the premiere or TikTokers recreating the dance she does in the trailer. Her name is an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android, which is at least more convincing than Mac’s robot partner, the Computerized Humanoid Electronically Enhanced Secret Enforcer (aka C.H.E.E.S.E.), from Friends, and she’s the brainchild of robotics engineer Gemma (a believably brittle Allison Willliams). The tightly-wound singleton brings M3GAN home to help her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), deal with the recent loss of her parents in a car accident from which she was the only survivor. Gemma has no interest in being a guardian, taking the little girl solely out of obligation and barely concealing how she truly feels about it either.
In fact, the movie’s most terrifying moment comes when Gemma is forced to tear open the box of one of her beloved collectable toys so Cady can play with it. Luckily, the lonely little girl and her new robot buddy quickly become BFFs, so she stays away from her aunt’s shelves from then on. Their super-close relationship also makes Gemma a hit at work, where her money-hungry boss (an enjoyably ill-tempered, if one-note, Ronny Chieng) wants to rush M3GAN into production so they can start charging $10,000 a pop for her. Naturally, as these things usually go, that means ignoring the android’s homicidal tendencies until it’s too late and Gemma is facing down a four-foot-tall demon that she’s unwittingly let loose in her own home. Making matters worse, Cady doesn’t seem to realize there’s anything wrong with her robot pal and refuses to give her up. Can a career woman with zero maternal instincts defeat an AI kid to save the life of a human one before it’s too late?
M3GAN flirts briefly with deeper societal issues like our over-reliance on technology–Cady’s parents crash partly because she drops her Furby-like toy on the floor and scrambles to pick it up, distracting them from the road–but for the most part Cooper and her co-conspirator James Wan are content to just place the titular robot in everyday situations to demonstrate her inherent creepiness. It doesn’t get much deeper than that, and you could reasonably argue it doesn’t have to. The VFX on the doll are impressive, diving headfirst into the Uncanny Valley until M3GAN starts looking disturbingly like a regular kid, and actor Amie Donald moves in a nicely rickety manner whenever she takes over. As the voice of M3GAN, Jenna Davis affects a Valley girl lilt with an ever-present hint of menace, stopping Gemma in her tracks when she states firmly: “I thought we were having a conversation.” It’s tough to imagine how anybody could sleep with this creepy thing around–at least Chucky was cute at first–but Cady’s grief does a lot of the heavy lifting, particularly in the movie’s first two acts, which unavoidably drag as everything is set up.
When M3GAN finally lets loose, the carnage is relatively tame save for a gnarly ear-ripping moment and a workplace stabbing. Disappointingly, there’s a whole room full of potential victims, who are eager to watch her do a presentation, but she only picks off a couple of them before sauntering away, stopping briefly to do the TikTok dance we’re all sick of by now. Johnstone consistently cuts away from the most violent moments, which can be effective when the tension is properly established and the threat is clear, leaving us to fill in the blanks, but here it comes across like he hasn’t got the confidence or maybe the freedom to follow through. Besides, M3GAN is clearly unhinged from the outset, so there’s no big “gotcha!” moment when her evil nature is revealed; it just feels like an inevitability. If there was enough bloodshed to justify the softer tone, or even a ridiculous about-turn like Malignant (to which this movie has repeatedly and rather dubiously been compared, mostly because they share a writer), the final act showdown wouldn’t feel so lame.
Williams is terrific in a surprisingly progressive role (you can tell Gemma was written by a woman). She makes no apologies for her lifestyle and indeed M3GAN helps Gemma get back to it sooner than she’d anticipated. At one point, Gemma gives a speech about parents handing over the time-consuming duties of child-rearing to their new robotic helper, so they have time for more pressing matters, and the movie then cuts to Gemma relaxing on the sofa with her laptop and a glass of wine. It’s one of the strongest and most incisive jokes, right up there with “Let’s kick Hasbro in the dick!” Likewise, it’s heartening that she doesn’t have to completely change who she is to accommodate Cady, nor is Gemma punished for not magically turning into supermom right off the bat either. McGraw, meanwhile, has a lot to contend with as Gemma’s young charge, from interacting with M3GAN to processing losing her parents, and at times the character is tough to like, especially when she’s lashing out. But Cady’s trajectory makes sense in the context of what she’s been through, and her chemistry with the robot is spot on.
M3GAN is inarguably more comedy than horror, with the filmmakers getting plenty of mileage out of how the titular robot walks, moves her face, and speaks. Choosing a Sia song for her to lull Cady to sleep with is clever because not only is it simultaneously an ear-worm and an inexplicable choice for bedtime totally befitting an unhinged android, but that singer’s strange relationship with her “muse” Maddie Ziegler adds a whole other layer of ickiness. Even despite all the laughs though, it’s all a bit tame, especially as killer doll movies go, and doesn’t get nearly as crazy as you’d expect it to. If this film had only followed in the stead of the useless Annabelle series–which was DOA not least because the bloody thing doesn’t even move–then maybe it would be more effective. But M3GAN is emerging right after Chucky Season 2, and with Season 3 recently green-lit. Although the two toys have been beefing on social media, there’s no comparison between them and if it did come down to a fight (we can only dream) Chucky would be the clear winner, no question.
There’s just one reference to the iconic killer doll in M3GAN, and it’s a visual one, which is smart because anything further would just make us wish we were watching Chucky properly letting loose instead. Suffice it to say, as much fun as it is, when it comes to modern killer doll movies, M3GAN is a major step up from Annabelle, but still can’t compete with the granddaddy of them all. He’d never willingly leave that stupid kid alive.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Gerard Johnstone
Writer(s): Akela Cooper, James Wan
Stars: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Jenna Davis, Ronnie Chieng
Release date: January 6, 2023
Run Time: 102 minutes