Review: Robot-Doll Thriller M3GAN is Also Surprisingly Smart and Funny

The only big gripe I have about the new evil-robot thriller M3GAN is that there isn’t a single second of this movie where we don’t know that at some point the life-like android companion is going to turn on humans and start hurting or killing them if she deems them a threat to her eight-year-old charge, Cady (Violet McGraw), whose parents were recently killed in a nasty car accident. As a result of this tragedy, Cady is sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams, Get Out), a roboticist who helped design one of Cady’s favorite toys, a Furbie-like pet that you can communicate with on a limited basis and control with a tablet.

But while Gemma is hard at work with her colleagues trying to make a version of their toy that is less expensive, she decides to show her boss (Ronny Chieng) something new she’s been secretly working on, the M3GAN doll (played by Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis), which listens to and watches the child it connects with and becomes their playmate, best friend, teacher, and even protector. By allowing M3GAN to look mostly human, it makes the bonding experience all the easier for the human. The first reveal for the doll doesn’t go as planned, so Gemma is told to end the project and concentrate on toy improvements. But Gemma knows she’s not built to be a great parent, so she secretly finishes the M3GAN doll and pairs it with Cady with surprisingly effective results.

Because the producers of the film are Jason Blum and horror maestro James Wan, the screenwriter is Akela Cooper (Malignant), and the director is Gerard Johnstone (Housebound), we suspect that M3GAN is soon going to transform into a horror show, which is partially true. It’s also a surprisingly smart and funny dark comedy as well, which plays with our newfound fears about artificial intelligence, as well as our age-old phobia of creepy dolls like Chucky and Annabelle. The difference here is that nothing about M3GAN is supernatural, so I rarely found myself scared during the movie. But make no mistake, M3GAN the doll is a creepy, dead-eyed entity that ends up seeing everything as a threat to Cady, and reacts by flat-out murdering potential dangers, even choosing to ignore its own programming regarding hurting human beings.

Some things about the film are admittedly far-fetched, such as the idea that the company Gemma works for wouldn’t lock down any version of the M3GAN doll as soon as they realized it was going to be the next big toy. But because Cady is so attached to her doll, it just stays with her, occasionally going out into public where any industrial spy could steal it or otherwise get a pretty good look at what M3GAN was capable of. But as M3GAN gets smarter and more self-aware, she also gets sassy and less reliant on her human overseers for learning. She’s still very much about protecting Cady, but she’s also manipulated the little girl into being completely dependent on her, to the point where Cady freaks out whenever she and M3GAN are separated.

There’s a cracking wit and fearlessness to this style of horror filmmaking, and all credit must be given to screenwriter Cooper (working from a story idea by her and Wan) and director Johnstone, who is always aware of the outrageousness of the entire M3GAN scenario but never winks at his audience or makes any of the film seem too clever for its own good. The movie plays with expectations, sets up things early on that pay off much later in the film (get ready to meet another character named Bruce), and even allows Cady to be the architect of her own salvation, which seems especially necessary when M3GAN reveals that the best way to keep Cady safe is to paralyze her and become her full-time caregiver. The film also deals with Cady’s trauma compassionately, and that goes a long way to understanding why she is so desperate to find a friend she can talk to about her grief and pain when her aunt seems incapable. Usually the horror offerings that come out in January are unceremoniously tossed into theaters while people are mostly paying attention to end-of-year awards contenders, but M3GAN is a real treat and a genuinely surprising, quality movie in the dumping ground that is the first week of the year. Lucky us.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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