In every way.
When a traffic accident lands eight-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) in her aunt’s lap, Gemma (Allison Williams) is ill-prepared to become an instant mom. Fortunately, Cady takes an interest in Gemma’s robotics wizardry, prompting a solution: finish work on an advanced toy with the capability of forming an emotional bond. Gemma introduces Cady to “M3gan” (Amie Donald, voice Jenna Davis), a four-foot-tall learning android with the appearance of a doll. As the bond between robot and child grows, Gemma unveils the work to her boss David (Ronny Chieng), who is eager to launch it as the next big must-have toy to their company. Unbeknownst to Gemma (but beknownst to us), M3gan is learning at an incredible rate, and its interpretation of protecting Cady from physical and emotional harm quickly and dangerously evolves.
From a story by producer James Wan for a screenplay by Akela Cooper, director Gerard Johnstone goes where every sci-fi horror flick has gone before: the dangers of artificial intelligence. From the Terminator franchise to the recent Child’s Play reboot and HBO’s “Westworld,” mankind can’t seem to rid itself of its obsession with thinking machines despite Isaac Asimov’s warning that “three laws safe” really aren’t. At the same time, it’s also a living doll movie like “Chucky,” Annabelle, and James Wan’s least-memorable ventriloquist’s dummy from Dead Silence. With no Will Smith character in the pipeline to protect humanity from I, Robot, is it only a matter of time before M3gan unleashes or becomes Skynet?
Similar to the balancing act between thrills, kills, and played-straight absurdity that propelled the 2021 Malignant, it’s no surprise to the audience that M3gan is already thinking for herself. Given the form of child, foolish humans treat her as such, creeped out by the same qualities that fascinate them and trusting she can simply be turned off when playtime is over. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, Gemma is so preoccupied with whether or not she could create a silicon surrogate, she didn’t stop to think if she should. In addition to taking necessary time building up who and what M3gan is, the film is still a crowd-pleaser; it’s a joy to watch her work as the body count creatively rises with deserving and not-so deserving victims, making it easy to cheer her on before the mandatory realization no one is beyond her reach.
For a story about an over-engineered toy going rogue, there’s a lot of subtlety going on. Listen to M3gan’s irritated tone when responding to Gemma’s counter commands; a scene where the robot is looking at a butterfly before a helicopter passes over; even providing an off-the-cuff existential answer to the question “What are you?” M3gan figures things out fast, even adjusting a future encounter due to almost being caught earlier. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill slasher where victims are set up just to knock them down; James Wan builds franchises, and the seeded ideas aren’t just an excuse for wacky mechanical mayhem. Finally, the warning about children being given technology and media as a babysitter or constant distraction shouldn’t be discounted: parents should know what’s influencing their kids, and the only way to do that is to be involved.
If Violet McGraw looks familiar, she was Rose the Hat’s first onscreen victim in Doctor Sleep, and don’t forget the girlfriend experience of Allison Williams in Get Out. M3gan is an unusually good popcorn flick for a first-weekend-of-the-new-year release, a time frame often reserved for awards contenders and holdovers seeking audiences… you know, “pretty people talking in pretty rooms.” Hollywood is still trying to lure viewers back into theaters, and for everyone who’s already seen Avatar 2, here’s at least one more reason to purchase a ticket and head out to your local cinema.
M3gan is rated PG-13 for violent content and terror, some strong language, a suggestive reference, and covering Sia to cover your tracks.
Four skull recommendation out of four