She’s more than a toy. She’s family.
Screenwriter Akela Cooper brought to life one of the most bonkers horror films in recent memory with her script for James Wan’s Malignant (2021). Again, working with Wan and Kiwi director Gerard Johnstone, Housebound (2014), her sense of the absurd is in full display in the PG-13 horror/comedy M3GAN.
Young Cady, played by Violet McGraw, Doctor Sleep (2019), is suddenly orphaned after a car crash. She is sent to live with her slightly estranged aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who is a career-driven roboticist working for a company called FUNKI whose primary source of income is a Furby-like creature known as a PurRpetual Pet (the film starts with an absolutely hilarious advertisement for the product which really sets the tone for the rest of the movie).
Gemma really isn’t given time to adjust to being a caregiver for a child, her house is decidedly not kid-friendly, and the only toys she owns are collectibles. Cady is used to attentive parents who have home-schooled her and restrict screen time. Gemma, on the other hand, is happy to pass her iPad to Cady and tell her to use it for as long as she likes.
Gemma, with her team at FUNKI, has been working on her passion project in secret. That project is the ‘Model 3 Generative Android,’ also known as M3GAN. An accidental and disastrous display of M3GAN has Gemma’s narcissistic boss, David (Ronny Chieng), demanding that they shelve M3GAN forever and instead concentrate on finding new ways to upgrade the PurRpetual Pet to compete with knockoff versions.
Gemma is too talented to be wasting her time on the faux Furby (with spyware written in) and also too busy to care adequately for Cady, who is dealing with enormous grief. Gemma is also dealing with a social worker, Lydia (Amy Usherwood), trying to decide if she is a fit guardian for Cady. When Cady takes an interest in her college project robot, Gemma decides it’s time to work on M3GAN to provide Cady with company and to perhaps abnegate some of her newly parental responsibilities. M3GAN is a rushed creation with software that is not quite complete but has enough adaptive learning capabilities to constantly update herself. What could possibly go wrong?
We’ve seen so many versions of the scary doll in horror cinema, even in Blumhouse’s own productions. We’ve seen many versions of the scary robot, too — from Skynet creating the Terminators, to Ex-Machina (2014), and RoboCop (1987). Dolls usually appear in a child’s form (think Chucky and Annabelle) and robots in an adult form. M3GAN takes the best and worst of both worlds and walks/dances into the uncanny valley in a manner that is absolutely high camp.
M3GAN (voice acted by Jenna Davis and physically acted by Amie Donald) imprints on Cady, who is her primary user. Her function is to protect and ensure Cady’s happiness, a mission she takes with deadly seriousness. Looking every bit like a fourth Olsen sister, M3GAN is immediately creepy. However, you often feel as though she’s probably right for doing some horrendous things that align in many ways with a child’s wish fulfillment.
Gemma sees how well her creation has bonded with Cady and decides to finally present it to her bosses at FUNKI. The scenes involving this range from hilarious (M3GAN breaking into a Sia song is particularly aware considering how Sia used Maddie Ziegler as her dancing doll for years) to heart-breaking. Nonetheless, David recognizes that they have a hit in M3GAN and prepares for a worldwide launch which the audience already knows is a “very bad thing.”
M3GAN is more satire than horror, although dolls and robots are horror fodder. The slasher elements are toned down for the rating, but the comedy elements are brought to the fore. In an era where your phone is tracking you, your home assistant (should you have one) is collecting data on you and selling it, and all social media apps are using you for content, the probability of, at least, a PurRpetual pet is not far off. The logical extension is M3GAN (although robotics realistically is so far away from the physical tech for it). There’s nothing subtle about the movie, but therein is the core enjoyment.
Violet McGraw (sister of Madeleine) has already made a name for herself in horror, having been in a couple of Mike Flanagan works. She’s competent in her role and manages to inhabit her complex trauma and loneliness. There are some great side performances, such as Stephane Garneau-Monten’s Kurt, David’s beleaguered assistant; Lori Dungey as Gemma’s insufferable neighbor; and Jack Cassidy as the odious bully, Brandon.
Gerard Johnstone has proven he knows how to balance comedy with horror with his wonderful low-budget Housebound. He directs M3GAN with the same canny eye for capturing the best of the genres — although, as previously mentioned, the horror element is not as much onscreen violence as it is the execution of the idea. The real props need to go to Akela Cooper, who, after years in television, is emerging as a pre-eminent horror script writer. M3GAN can be almost cloyingly self-aware at times, but it does exactly what it says it will do on the box.
Sometimes you know when something has cult-classic written all over it, and although M3GAN might be too of the moment to achieve that, it certainly has camp-classic stamped on it. Mary Shelley knew she was tapping into humankind’s hubris when she wrote the oft-filmed and oft-imitated Frankenstein. M3GAN is again a version of the story, but our sympathies can’t eventually rest with Gemma’s creation.
At its heart, M3GAN is funny but also knowing. Rumors of an R-rated version of the film (for the horror) have already got people excited. As it stands, go along and enjoy the version we have, you wouldn’t want to upset M3GAN by not paying adequate attention to her.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney
M3GAN is released through Universal Pictures Australia