Move over Chucky: there's a new killer doll terrorising the screen, and entertaining cinemagoers, in this supremely self-aware sci-fi/horror flick.
January 12, 2023
Book in a date with 2 M3GAN 2 Furious now: even if it doesn't take that name, which it won't, a sequel to 2023's first guaranteed horror hit will come. Said follow-up also won't be called M3GAN 2: Electric Boogaloo, but that title would fit based on the first flick's TikTok-worthy dance sequence alone. Meme-starting fancy footwork is just one of the titular doll's skills. Earnestly singing 'Titanium' like this is Pitch Perfect, tickling the ivories with 80s classic 'Toy Soldiers', making these moments some of M3GAN's funniest: they're feats the robot achieves like it's designed to, too. Although unafraid to take wild tonal swings, and mining the established comedy-horror talents of New Zealand filmmaker Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) and screenwriter Akela Cooper (Malignant) as well, this killer-plaything flick does feel highly programmed itself, however. It's winking, knowing, silly, satirical, slick and highly engineered all at once, overtly pushing buttons and demanding a response — and, thankfully, mostly earning it.
Those Child's Play-meets-Annabelle-meets-The Terminator-meets-HAL 9000 thoughts that M3GAN's basic concept instantly brings to mind? They all prove true. The eponymous droid — a Model 3 Generative Android, to be specific — is a four-foot-tall artificially intelligent doll that takes the task of protecting pre-teen Cady (Violet McGraw, Black Widow) from emotional and physical harm deadly seriously, creeping out and/or causing carnage against everyone who gets in its way. Those Frankenstein-esque sparks, exploring what happens when humanity (or Girls and Get Out's Allison Williams here, as Cady's roboticist aunt Gemma) plays god by creating life? They're just as evident, as relevant to the digital age Ex Machina-style. M3GAN is more formulaic than it should be, though, and also never as thoughtful as it wants to be, but prolific horror figures Jason Blum and James Wan produce a film that's almost always entertaining.
In her job for toymaker Funki, working under brash CEO David (Ronny Chieng, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Gemma is responsible for three of the movie's most perturbing aspects. Yes, M3GAN is one of them. But the "cyborg puppet show", as David initially dubs it dismissively, comes about after his star employee installs listening software in the company's bestselling PurRpetual Pets — aka furry, troll-like trinkets that chat back, poop if you overfeed them and, as a parody-leaning ad openly says, bests IRL dogs and cats by never dying. As technology advances, ignoring how insidiously it's surveilling us is the bargain we've generally struck, but M3GAN doesn't forget it. Fleshing out a story co-conjured up by Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring's Wan, Cooper doesn't forget the other deal we've made with our smart gadgets and even just our ever-present screens, letting them make our lives easier by eradicating plenty of our human interactions.
Gemma is meant to be working on a new, cheaper but shinier version of PurRpetual Pets, with a competitor undercutting Funki with a more affordable knockoff to David's dismay; however, her heart belongs to M3GAN. Then, via a tragedy, she's suddenly Cady's guardian — and because she wears flannelette, keeps collectibles and gets cranky about her overbearing neighbour's wandering pooch, she's immediately coded as anything but the mothering type. So, getting M3GAN functional serves multiple purposes, including giving Cady the kind of caregiver that her aunt instinctively isn't. "We're gonna kick Hasbro's dick!" David exclaims when he sees M3GAN in action as a walking, talking, bonding, nurturing, do-it-all bestie-slash-nanny that he can sell for $10,000 a pop. While the doll itself doesn't ever utter anything similar — she's murderous, but also child-friendly — as its AI learns and evolves, it's gonna knock about everyone who threatens Cady and its own existence.
Hasbro's wares have scored the movie treatment in the Transformers, Power Rangers and GI Joe flicks and more, and M3GAN makes junk of most. They all largely did that themselves anyway, but none have this film's namesake, who makes one helluva horror nemesis. Clearly the product of ample time meticulously getting the specifics exactly right, M3GAN sports a lifelike-enough appearance that dwells deep in the uncanny valley, and could never visibly be confused for actual flesh-and-blood up close. And yet, the size is right, it pals around with Cady like they're peers and it dresses more like a stylish 70s Barbie than a standard doll. Its physical movements are preternatural, and its arch retorts and reactions — and often just its voice — would make Mean Girls' Plastics wither. Young actor Amie Donald (Sweet Tooth) plays the part, while TikTok star Jenna Davis (Maggie) provides M3GAN's vocals, with every detail pitch-perfect.
Execution: M3GAN chiefly slays it, but because Gemma fluffs it (rushing to get the job done, overlooking parental controls as well as parameters for morals and ethics, and being too eager to avoid her guardian responsibilities), M3GAN savagely and repeatedly slays. As the brutal plaything's inventor and main target, Williams is fascinating, too, especially given that she comes to the part — any part — with her most famous past role's considerable baggage. She isn't playing Marnie Michaels as an expert coder here, obviously. In fact, the fact that the deranged toy she's facing patently resembles Williams is a savvy way of having the actor tear down the idea that she's crafted herself an on-screen type. Gemma isn't the uncomplicated hero of the piece, though, as a workaholic who happily outsources caring for a child to an untested gadget, revels in creating AI life to help cope with loss, then finds herself firmly standing in Victor Frankenstein's shoes.
There's bite to Gemma's path, and to M3GAN's musings on motherhood, work-life balance, corporate culture and 21st-century chaos, as familiar as they all are — and, even when simply jerkily tilting its head or stealthily sneaking up unexpectedly, to M3GAN. There isn't as much blood to the film, sadly, with needing to appeal to a teen audience ensuring that it never fulfils its gory and deranged potential, including when the body count starts ramping up and the final act goes for adolescent-appropriate broke. What this sci-fi nightmare lacks in splatter, it compensates for with that gleefully campy, tongue-in-cheek and utterly self-aware vibe, forceful as it can be; M3GAN's trailer and its choreography didn't go viral months before the movie hit cinemas by accident. Indeed, Johnstone evokes the right sardonic atmosphere with the efficiency of his central robo-slasher. 2023 was already set to be the year of the big-screen doll thanks to Barbie, but M3GAN stalks the cinematic toy chest formidably and fiendishly first.
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