M3GAN and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Gerard Johnstone
Every year like clockwork we get a horror movie that seemingly comes out of nowhere and gets the mass’s attention in a big way. Last year it was Terrifier 2, arguably Malignant the year before, and with this little robot girl’s meme-worthy dance moves, there was little doubt that this was going to make a splash in the usually ho-hum month of January. Still, the killer-doll movie is not the easiest story to pull off as failing to make the situation scary turns it into laughable nonsense, and however well M3GAN can pull off those Tik-Tok dances, she’s still gonna have to deliver on the horror if this is to live up to the hype. Is this a fantastic entry in the genre with a very savvy marketing campaign, or have we already seen the best this movie has to offer? Let’s find out!!
Each generation needs its definitive doll; from Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo all the way to Bratz and Monster High. Of course, none of those dolls were able to connect to the web or pass a Turing Test, and that’s the niche that M3GAN (Amie Donald and Jenna Davis) hope to fill as her creator Gemma (Allison Williams) promises to not just be a toy but a true friend! Good thing too, considering that Gemma’s sister just died in a horrible car crash with her husband and now has to take care of her niece Cady (Violet McGraw) who she can’t quite relate to but provides just the inspiration she needs to turn M3GAN into more than just a pipe dream and a tortured anagram for “Model 3 Generative Android”. With M3GAN finally approaching something resembling functional, Gemma gives her to Cady to help her navigate life after such a devastating loss which also allows her to field test the robot so her company can put her on the market. It certainly seems like a lot of responsibility to put on a freshly compiled artificial intelligence, and perhaps Gemma’s eagerness gets the best of her as M3GAN seems to be learning a little too much out there in the real world; one that can’t easily be quantified by code or operates on a set of defined rules. Will M3GAN take the wrong lessons from the world around her and become yet another cautionary tale of science gone wrong? How will Cady cope with the loss of her parents, and can M3GAN be a suitable replacement for the love and support that Gemma seems unable to provide? Seriously, is there anyone out there, robot or otherwise, that can remain well-adjusted with a non-stop internet connection?
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie which could have easily been another underwhelming stab at the Child’s Play formula, but what surprised me is how engaging this was as a story. It’s not the most original idea given how many sci-fi stories have this premise, but it manages to do what good speculative sci-fi should and finds a way to make the ideas believable even if the science is not. M3GAN as yet another creation born of humanity’s hubris goes through many of the same beats you’d expect as the darker side of humanity makes her more and more aggressive, but her relationship with both Cady and Gemma gives the themes room to grow as we once again contemplate our own shortcomings in the face of someone soaking them all in for the first time. Gemma in particular is an extremely flawed character who all but neglects her niece due to her own emotional immaturity, but the movie smartly avoids judging any of its principal characters too harshly as trying to get the audience to take sides would only undercut the themes at play and deflate the tension of the situation. Where the movie falls short however is everything outside of our three main characters as the writing isn’t as sharp for the rest of the cast, and the scenes that are meant to be the scary moments feel underwhelming and unnecessary. Our robot friend is at her best when she’s pushing back against the bounds of her programming, but these rather pointless moments go well over the line and in doing so dampen the tension instead of accentuating it. A better set of characters for these horrific moments to happen to might have added some gravity to them, but instead, we’re stuck with some rather stock horror clichés and it all ends up being padding around a gripping core dynamic.
This is a darn good speculative sci-fi story here and for the most part, they hit all the notes they need to for it to work, but it feels weighed down by the expectations of its own genre. Perhaps the spikes in violence throughout will keep audiences engaged and maintain a certain level of menace for M3GAN, but for me, the movie felt like it was grasping at straws to find justifications for these scenes when the rest of it is so effortlessly compelling. Still, even at its most blatantly pandering it never distracts enough from the real meat of the story and the finale manages to end things on a high note which will stick in the memory far longer than any of the movie’s faults. It’ll be interesting to see if they try to wring a few sequels out of this, something that Blumhouse and Universal are not above doing for any of their horror franchises, but it definitely feels like they captured lightning in a bottle with this one and I’m glad to see these classic sci-fi ideas adding this much depth to what could have easily been just another disposable horror flick. Hopefully, that’s the lesson that studios will take away from this, though chances are they’ll just start putting dance routines in their trailers. I wouldn’t say no to seeing Michael Myers doing The Robot, but still…