‘M3GAN’ Review: Toy Gory

Aaron Neuwirth reviews M3GAN, a techno-thriller involving a lifelike doll with AI programming that evolves in the deadliest of ways, from the writer of Malignant.
User Rating: 6

I get a big kick out of “technology gone wrong” stories as much as I enjoy being entertainingly frustrated by creepy kid movies. Blumhouse’s M3GAN is delivering on both in a film that may lack narrative innovation but still delivers on being a crowd-pleasing riot in the realm of high-concept horror. This is the sort of movie that sets up so many irritating characters doomed to meet a terrible end that one can’t help but get a kick out of the way the evil robot doll goes about its business to complete the task, as obvious as most of the outcomes may appear. At the same time, Akela Cooper, writer of the gonzo James Wan flick Malignant, is putting plenty of intentional dark humor on top of everything to make M3GAN fun enough to outweigh its predictability.

Allison Williams stars as Gemma, a roboticist working with artificial intelligence to develop a lifelike doll. After unexpectedly gaining custody of her recently orphaned niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), Gemma eventually completes a prototype Model 3 Generative Android (M3GAN). This self-aware doll is paired with Cady. While the robotic companion at first seems like a major success and the next big thing as far as Gemma’s CEO boss (The Daily Show’s Ronny Chieng) is concerned, things quickly become more complicated. Being protective of Cady and a constantly evolving machine, M3GAN becomes much deadlier than anyone could have anticipated.

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Clearly, director Gerard Johnstone and the story team were not very concerned with Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and why should they be? There’s no movie if we suddenly start placing boundaries on what are killer robot dolls’ capabilities. The chief goal of a film like this is to be an entertaining ride. If that means throwing out certain levels of intelligence when examining the thought process of someone who is basically the preeminent roboticist in America or whatever, I’m happy to go along with it. I just wish the film wasn’t telegraphing so much of what was coming.

Once M3GAN becomes active, let alone creepier, the film comes alive in the right sort of ways. Sure, the build-up is part of what makes any horror movie effective, but that doesn’t mean a lack of personality until delivery on scares is appropriate, either. Although, there are attempts. The opening features a commercial for a Furby-like toy for the modern age with a touch of satirical edge. Otherwise, the movie tries to milk all the fun it can have from Chieng’s depiction of a demanding boss full of quips. Somehow this needs to balance with a plot involving a little girl losing her parents in a car crash.

After pushing through that first third, however, the movie is able to come alive thanks to how M3GAN affects the lives of all involved. Performed by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, this is a wicked creation that is handled the right sort of way when considering its intentions. An issue I’ve had with certain stories like this revolves around how evil the products involved already seem from the get-go. With no allusions surrounding the potential for danger, where’s the sense of surprise? I don’t know if an actual M3GAN would be so hotly demanded as this film suggests, but the concept and initial execution at least make it fit as something a child could latch onto.

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With all that in mind, M3GAN gets away with many clever thoughts surrounding the smart doll’s capabilities. It can sing, dance, draw, and teach lessons. That’s all well and good, but the way this movie dances around safeguards it should have had allows M3GAN to have a sort of attitude that will only develop in ways designed to shock the audience while also holding onto a smirk. By the time M3GAN sees fit to get more violent to do what its programming sees fit as the best solution, we may or may not be actively rooting for the killer robot to succeed, but the film knows we can’t deny wanting certain actions to be the result.

It’s not exactly subversion (multiple Child’s Play movies and a TV series have made it clear that audiences are happy to embrace the joy of a murderous toy), but knowing this film is aware just enough means it knows how to get away with its deviousness. Throughout this film, it’s not as though people deserve a death sentence via evil robot, but they’re also developed in ways that can be justified through horror movie logic. It makes M3GAN a darkly enjoyable film for this reason, without feeling mean-spirited about it (an issue I had with the Child’s Play remake, bringing things full circle).

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As far as how it presents M3GAN’s mayhem as a PG-13 Blumhouse entry, it’s not exactly light on the bloodshed, but it’s not aiming for a high amount of gore, either. Still, rather than playing it tame, the film’s editing is handled effectively enough to allow M3GAN’s chilling looks and clever cuts to do plenty with implication. Plus, given how these films are known for maximizing a low budget, there’s a lot to like in how M3GAN gets away with minimal locations and what is ostensibly a visual effect (achieved through various means) serving as a primary character.

A film like M3GAN is not exactly raising the bar, but it is hitting its required beats and doing so with plenty of campy energy in mind. That said, while being practically built for meme/gif culture, it’s still a film attempting to tackle ideas surrounding grief and the over-reliance on technology to handle life’s problems. This is also a movie where M3GAN delivers a few choice needle drops while looking like the Terminator’s prep school niece. As a fun horror diversion to open up the year, this is a fun enough film playing like the matinee you serve up before Blumhouse’s Upgrade.

M3GAN opens in theaters on January 6, 2023.

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6
Fair
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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