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
As always, you’re in the SPOILERS section now. This is YOUR LAST WARNING.
I believe there’s an entirely deeper level of complexity being setup for this film, specifically a real human reason Gemma has blinders on when it comes to M3GAN: James Wan is building a franchise, not just a one-off film. It’ll be the reason for one or many sequels, too, because even when first trying on her “face,” M3GAN was already a bit off… and if you’ve seen the film, you know why: M3GAN *is* Gemma… without filters and without limits.
This is a genius way to go. M3GAN passed up so many opportunities to kill Gemma — not because Gemma is her creator (M3G isn’t on board with any of that kowtow nonsense) but because Gemma was her first actual user. So if Gemma knows she’s ill-equipped to parent Cady, why does M3GAN bond with the child so completely? Because M3GAN’s’ true purpose was to be the daughter Gemma doesn’t have — maybe satisfying a secret maternal instinct and jealousy toward her sister — as well as a personal companion. The toy angle was merely a means to an end, hence secretly spending $100K developing it behind the back of her boss.
That personal attachment has consequences (as mentioned by the in-film psychologist) not just between Cady and M3G but also between M3G and Gemma; by assigning M3G to Cady, the android is being rejected. Not knowing how to handle that turns into lashing out and making others hurt, too. The machine has no need for filters, feels no physical pain, and understands that people have to follow laws or be punished, laws that don’t apply to programmed machines with off buttons and humans bearing responsibility.
Anyone who’s seen the 2010 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey knows HAL didn’t go all homicidal for no reason, and there’s a huge plot and story point made by it. 💀