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Sci-fi horror-comedy M3GAN is a new chapter in the killer doll subgenre of horror. There’s no demon or vengeful spirt inhabiting this particular doll; it’s actually something perhaps just as – if not more – terrifying and more timely for our tech-saturated reality: Artificial Intelligence.
Yes, another motion picture warning us of the danger of AI is here with M3GAN, a film that tells of a robotics engineer, Gemma (played by Get Out’s Allison Williams), who finds herself taking custody of her young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw, The Haunting of Hill House), following the death of her sister. For work, Gemma is a roboticist at Funki, a toy company that’s had success with a series of robotic toys. But, competitors are closing in and Funki needs a big new product to take to the market. Well, Gemma, whose work appears to be of higher priority than the orphaned child now in her care, could be onto something with her latest development: a life-like artificial doll named M3GAN, which stands for Model 3 Generative Android, by the way. And because Gemma has never seen a sci-fi film, M3GAN is designed to be a learning machine, designed to care for and remain loyal to the child it is paired with. What could go wrong?
It’s another creepy doll tale from The Conjuring and Saw filmmaker James Wan, who dabbled with the subgenre with 2007 horror film Dead Silence and is a producer on the Conjuring Universe’s Annabelle films. Wan came up with the story for this one alongside the film’s screenwriter, Akela Cooper, who penned Wan’s 2021 film Malignant and whose credits include Luke Cage and American Horror Story. At the helm is New Zealand filmmaker Gerard Johnstone, who broke out with 2014 horror-comedy Housebound (check that one out if you haven’t – it’s a good one).
Now, Wan did say that one of the reasons he chose Johnstone to direct is because he wanted the film to not only have the horror elements, but to also have a comedic edge. And, well, the film is definitely a dark comedy – more than I was expecting it to be. I’m not too sure the heavy marketing has a done a good job showcasing the film’s comedic leanings, but, hey, the dips into humour could be a pleasant surprise for some. For me, the comedy has both a positive and a slight detriment: I did have some good laughs and I appreciated just how self-aware the film was, but it did take away from the grittiness and, well, the dark thrills I feel that a film like this needs to deliver on.
The film is billed as something of a horror sci-fi film, but if you head into this primarily hoping some decent horror and robo carnage – you may be a tad disappointed. While there’s certainly some tension to be had as M3GAN’s unsettling eyes studies potential victims, and the few kills there are do make for some energetic sequences, the film’s thriller/horror elements are very familiar. From the setups to the slaughters, it’s firmly within well-trodden formula. I would have like a bit more creativity overall, particularly since the sci-fi element opens up an array of possibilities.
Now, so far it may sound like I didn’t like M3GAN, but even though I did find it too formulaic and, ultimately quite predictable, I actually did have a decent time. It’s an entertaining, amusing popcorn film that moves along at a nice pace, and, importantly, the titular character is great. M3GAN’s chilling eyes are used to strong effect, portraying all manner of dark thoughts – or should I say processes – with just a stare or a slow movement. Created using a combination of physical performance from young New Zealand star Amie Donald, voice work from Jenna Davis, and digital enhancements by Weta FX, M3GAN is a believable creation – one that you can imagine being in people’s houses any day now as tech continues to expand rapidly. M3GAN taps into our uncanny valley fears, as well as our fears of just what can unfold when AI approaches sentience. Cooper’s screenplay does have some interesting things to say about the rise in tech, particularly with how Artificial Intelligence and a reliance on technology can affect children and the role of a parent/guardian.
M3GAN’s escalating threat is nicely drawn out, and key to that is the doll’s convincing relationship with young Cady. Young Violet McGraw puts in a strong performance as this poor little girl who’s been dealt a really, really bad hand in life. Allison Williams is also good as Gemma, although the character of Gemma remains unlikeable for much too long in my opinion. I understand that they wanted to give her a growth path and perhaps some sort of redemption arc, but I found it hard to really side with her for much of the film. And then when little Cady starts acting out, understandably so, I was left, like, “Everyone could die at this point and I’d be fine with it.”
While I did find much of it fairly entertaining, I found that M3GAN simply plays within convention too strongly. Being able to predict a good amount of the plot doesn’t leave much room for surprises; I found myself really hoping for an out-of-left-field twist, or even a surprise character kill, to throw some kind of spanner in the works. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is ultimately a lite and enjoyable comedy-horror flick, and a decent chapter in the annals of creepy doll cinema. By the way, there’s a strong chance we get a sequel for this one, and seeing as this does feel like a bit of a plot-establishing first episode, I’m hoping it happens.