“M3GAN” stars Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Ronny Chieng, and Brian Jordan Alvarez. Released on January 6, 2023, the film has a roboticist protecting her recently orphaned niece from her creation.
The film is directed by Gerard Johnstone, who also directed “Housebound” and a couple of television shows like “Terry Teo” and “The New Legends of Monkey”. If you want to give your child a doll to play with, make sure that it doesn’t have AI programming inserted. We all know what happens when we try to use artificial intelligence to solve our problems. It always comes to bite us in the butt…or kill us. Unsurprisingly, we’re starting the new year with another horror film that’ll either scare us with delight or bore us with its genericness. Regarding the genre’s track record in January, I wouldn’t be shocked if it was the latter. On the other hand, it does involve James Wan serving as the producer and screenwriter Akela Cooper, who previously worked with Wan in “Malignant”. So there might be a chance that this could be another surprise hit for the horror genre, considering how much I enjoyed “Malignant”. With that in mind, let’s see if the film has the proper functions to provide entertaining thrills and frights and kickstart 2023.
The story follows Gemma (Williams), a roboticist at a famous toy company, Funki. Gemma is in the process of making a lifelike doll, codenamed M3GAN (Donald/Davis). Also known as Model 3 Generative Android, M3GAN is programmed to be every child’s best friend and every parent’s most reliable ally. One day, Gemma unexpectedly gains custody of her recently orphaned niece, Cady (McGraw), when the child’s parents die in a car accident. Gemma then enlists the help of her M3GAN prototype, which is infused with artificial intelligence, to cheer Cady up. Eventually, M3GAN becomes self-aware and goes full-on Terminator on anyone who tries to harm her and Cady. As a result, Gemma attempts to shut M3GAN down for good.
When I first saw the poster and the trailer for “M3GAN”, I was immediately reminded of another killer doll movie, “Child’s Play”, mainly the 2019 remake, which I surprisingly enjoyed. Both films involve dolls with artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and going on a killing spree against humankind. So, in other words, ladies and gentlemen, what you’re looking at here is a gender-swapped remake of the 2019 reimagining of the 1988 slasher cult classic. That’s another way to throw originality into the trash can. But, of course, I’m willing to forgive its derivative nature if it provides something worth remembering regarding its presentation and story.
The difference between “M3GAN” and 2019’s “Child’s Play” is that the former got slapped with a PG-13 rating, which is surprising considering its marketing and concept. Additionally, the movie appears to be leaning towards a comically dark approach to its scares and themes. Horror comedies can be fun to watch with the proper balance of humor and terror, but they can also pose a risk of alienating audiences put off by their campiness, especially in this day and age. All that matters to me is whether I have fun being scared and laughing at the absurdity, regardless of the rating. Surprisingly, that’s what I did. Would I be quick to call it a horror classic? No, but I will say that it’s more tolerable than the other generic horror movies that came out in January.
Part of that is due to its reliance on the story and characters over pointless depictions of violence and gross imagery. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any violent acts or fatalities to provide shock value in horror movies. You can have those intact as long as they don’t overshadow the story it wants to tell. “M3GAN” is another modern horror film that reminds us there’s always room for good storytelling amid its frights and horror violence. In this case, the film depicts the dangers of underestimating artificial intelligence and the overreliance on technology to entertain kids. In today’s society, we’ve grown so attached to our technological toys that it makes it difficult for us to connect to other people and the real world. This fits effectively with the relationship between Gemma and Cady, with the latter growing more attached to M3GAN after the death of her parents.
As far as screenplays go for Akela Cooper, I thought she did a solid job with the script for “M3GAN”. Sure, I did enjoy the last movie she wrote, “Malignant”, but I thought her writing in “M3GAN” was a tad better due to how relatable it is. Of course, it’s far from perfect, but it’s respectable for providing tolerable characters and dialogue. The only issue I had with the script is that it does take noticeable cues from other films involving artificial intelligence and killer dolls, including “Annabelle” and “Child’s Play”. But again, that hardly matters as long as the execution is good, which it is.
As for the direction, I was impressed with how Gerard Johnstone handled its campy tone. The movie offers a vibe similar to other horror films, but it also provides several instances of humor consisting of absurd moments like M3GAN stretching out a boy’s ear to an impossible length. That’s something you would see out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, but I can’t help but chuckle at how dumb it looked in a good way. It’s silly, but it’s never afraid to express that silliness while maintaining its creepy tone. That’s how other movies like “Scream” succeed in providing fun, crowd-pleasing experiences made for theaters that are also tolerable for their stories.
Unfortunately, the movie does sometimes refrain from going all-out with its silliness and violence, primarily due to its PG-13 rating. As a result, some of the kills performed by M3GAN aren’t as shocking or scary as I hoped they would. However, it didn’t deteriorate the fun I had watching the doll get vengeance on those who deserve punishment. It shows that you don’t need an R rating to make a violent horror film diverting. You can have a teen-rated cake and eat it too if it delivers the same amount of violent fun as the ones made for adults, which “M3GAN” did.
Another reason is the film’s cast, which delivered enough moments in their performances to make the film entertaining. Allison Williams was decent in her performance as Gemma, while Violet McGraw made a solid effort in her role as Cady. However, the real stars worthy of my praise are the ones behind the titular robot doll. Amie Donald provides the physical performance of M3GAN, while Jenna Davis provides her voice. Donald’s movements effectively portray how an AI doll functions, especially when the character goes into beast mode. I would also give credit to Jenna Davis, who delivered a satisfying mixture of humor and terror regarding her vocal effects. Ronny Chieng and Brian Jordan Alvarez were also good as David and Cole, respectively.
The visual effects were also surprisingly good for a film with a small budget, mainly for M3GAN. Amie Donald’s physical performance was enhanced digitally with artificially oversized eyes and smooth, doll-like skin. The fact that it looks like it was made through practical effects showcases how much care was put into the visuals without unnecessarily increasing the budget. Also, the visuals for M3GAN’s frantic movements in the finale are enough to freak me out a bit.
Overall, “M3GAN” is functional enough to satisfy its customers with its irresistible sense of campiness, frights, and commentary. We recently had a few films that looked average or even mediocre at best based on the marketing but were surprisingly better in the final cuts. I’m glad to say that this sci-fi horror film from producers Jason Blum and James Wan is another addition to that well-deserved category. Like many others, I expected it to be an effortless rehash of “Child’s Play” based on the trailers, but I was shocked to see that it was more entertaining than I thought it would be. Yes, it borrows elements from the other AI horror movies and the ones involving murderous dolls, but it uses them to effectively portray a campy and chilling perspective on our reliance on technology. As a result, the movie is my biggest surprise of 2023 so far, thanks to its cast, Johnstone’s direction, Akela Cooper’s tolerable screenplay, and visual effects. Considering how many horror movies have started the new year on the wrong foot, this is another rewarding change of pace for the genre.