While it’s being called the female version of Chucky, the giddy new horror film M3GAN isn’t really in that same vein at all. Sure, they are dolls, and they both do some nasty things, but tonally there’s a difference. And that’s a great thing!
Written by Akela Cooper (who also wrote 2021’s whacked-out Malignant) and directed by Gerard Johnstone (the terrific import Housebound), M3GAN is everything we used to love about the nifty little thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with a modern bent. It’s moderately suspenseful, purposely hilarious, and even touches upon some themes that go deeper than you might expect. All of this makes for 2023’s first “get me away from all the maudlin Oscar-bait films” movie that will (hopefully) drive audiences to the theater.
Allison Williams (Girls) stars as Gemma, a robotics engineer working for a giant tech firm called “Funki” that specializes in robotic toys. Her psychotic boss, David (Ronny Chieng), is desperate to come out with a cheaper version of their uber-popular “PerPETual Pet” toys. But Gemma has a side-project that’s almost finished that she’s hoping to wow him with. That project is a life-size child doll named M3GAN that will bond with its owner, take care of them, and continue to learn.
But when Gemma’s sister (and her sister’s husband) die in a car accident, they leave her niece Cady (Violet McGraw) an orphan. Nervous about taking her in, she does so, but as a single nerdy gal, she’s not prepared for this new responsibility.
After failed attempts at connecting with Cady, Gemma sees Cady’s interest in her work and decides to put her all into finishing M3GAN. When she does, she uses Cady to bond with the doll to show her co-workers and her boss what she has developed.
All seems good at first, with M3GAN being a supportive friend and sometimes parental figure to the girl who becomes a wee bit obsessed with her new “friend.” “Don’t forget to wash your hands, Cady!” But as the capable robotic doll learns more and develops on her own, M3GAN takes a darker turn (surprise, surprise) as her directive to always protect Cady from emotional and physical harm is put to the test.
What is so terrific about M3GAN is that it has some moments of suspense and a few jump scares, but the setup’s dark humor and ridiculousness make the film so fun. Cooper’s script is pretty clever, giving M3GAN (voiced by Jenna Davis) some knowing one-liners and off-hand comments.
But not just that, Cooper goes deeper in looking at children’s attachment to electronics, parents’ reliance on them, and the emotional toll it can take on a child’s development. These things aren’t handled in a heavy-handed way either, but the film well-illustrates some of society’s issues with technology and the ludicrousness of how it’s used. (Cady’s mother comments on the fact that the PerPetual Pet toy has to be controlled by an iPad, so you have a physical toy, yet the kid is playing with it on a screen.)
Another stellar aspect of the film is Johnstone’s clever song choices. Only a certain generation will recognize it, but when Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” is plunked out on a piano, I couldn’t help but giggle. And M3GAN’s rendition of Sia’s “Titanium” is a hoot.
The cast is uniformly good, playing it deadly serious but always in on the joke. Williams is very effective here, as is McGraw as little Cady.
But credit must go to the two actresses who play M3GAN. Davis’ delivery as the psychotic doll is sometimes funny, sometimes dark, and thankfully never devolves into gravelly “Chucky” speak. Amie Donald is the “body” of M3GAN, and while it’s pretty obvious a real person is doing the movements, she does an excellent job of keeping it creepy and fun.
This is the type of movie audiences lined up for back in the day, and I’m hoping once movie-goers get Avatar out of the way, they’ll flock to this nifty little treat. This isn’t one to watch at home. This type of original thriller is meant to be seen with an audience who will laugh, gasp, and applaud together as M3GAN works her magic to become this generation’s ultimate killer doll.