M3GAN hits theaters on Jan. 6, 2023.
Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN proves itself more than gifable android dances and NFL halftime shows — a movie that pays off viral hype with the production goods. From the director of 2014’s haunted-hilarious Housebound and Akela Cooper, the writer of 2021’s madcap Malignant, comes an artificial intelligence thriller that fringes camp and trumps 2019’s inferior Child’s Play reinvention. M3GAN nails this American Girl meets American Psycho vibe that accentuates an automaton’s binary, soulless assessment of humankind’s follies while still finding time for memeable horror entertainment. Don’t expect perfection between flatter storytelling devices that clunkily push through familial drama or how humor overrides dolly-damndest frights, but do expect M3GAN to kickstart 2023’s genre scene with an out-of-the-box playtime villain who does it all.
Allison Williams portrays the workaholic toy company roboticist Gemma, whose latest pet project for employer Funki is put on hold when disaster strikes. Gemma becomes her niece Cady’s (Violet McGraw) guardian after a freak snow plow accident leaves Cady an orphan. Cooper’s screenplay explores adolescent trauma after the death of parents when Gemma decides to enlist Cady as her newest invention’s beta tester. Gemma introduces Cady to her A.I. supertoy M3GAN (voiced by Jenna Davis/acted by Amie Donald) — an all-in-one best friend, caretaker, and teacher with advanced learning capabilities that make Furby look like a paperweight. Cady and M3GAN form an inseparable bond to the delight of Gemma and Funki CEO David (Ronny Chieng) right before things go all Small Soldiers, Child’s Play, [insert more toys gone evil flicks].
M3GAN strives to be a cautionary tale about our 21st-century obsession with technology through the eyes of a career woman thrust into motherhood not by choice, but fate. Williams and pint-sized Violet McGraw fortify a barrier between their characters on purpose — M3GAN is their savior. Cooper touches on Gemma’s tragic negligence of Cady thanks to M3GAN’s programmed services beyond companionship, subtly scolded by Gemma’s coworker Tess (Jen Van Epps) in a world where iPads parent children. Two humans would rather interact with a software buffer than confront emotions caused by Cady’s immeasurable loss or Gemma’s world-turned dismay, which is so very 2020s. When Williams and McGraw escalate displeasure during dinner arguments or backseat tantrums, maternal tension holds steady.
Although, M3GAN sometimes struggles as an adoption drama where New Mommy and Obstinate Daughter butt heads over their heartbreaking lifestyle shake-ups. We’re here for M3GAN’s antics, yet the film’s pacing makes audiences wait and wait before truly unhinging into massacre mode. Johnstone’s so proficient at blending shudder-worthy horror with gut-busting hilarity that character-driven interludes feel slower, stunting momentum between M3GAN’s evolution from observant supercomputer to plucky A.I. assassin. Blumhouse’s decision to assure M3GAN’s PG-13 rating through reshoots isn’t a dealbreaker, but detracts from the already lesser emphasis on nightmarish scares, unlike Drag Me To Hell or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (also PG-13’ers). It’s a film that effortlessly entertains as a sassy techno-horror satire yet never feels evenly calibrated between M3GAN’s villainous manipulation, the emotional fragility at stake, and exquisite killer doll frights.
Which brings us to the star of the show, Ms. M3GAN.
From M3GAN’s titanium skeleton to her almost-human mannerisms, complete with disorienting glitches, she’s a rubber-faced horror megastar. Johnstone’s oddball sensibilities accentuate M3GAN’s good-girl facade — he’s the mastermind who suggested her iconic hallway dance choreography — as much as Jenna Davis’ soothing Disney Channel voice. Cinematography creatively counteracts M3GAN’s kiddie size against adult targets, framing a murderer to fear through towering shadows or concealed appearances. Then there’s body actor Amie Donald’s seamless transitioning between mechanical mannerisms and feral attack modes, which sells the whole dual-personality sociopath vibe. Teamwork makes the dream work as it takes a village to create and characterize M3GAN, sure to be one of 2023’s standout horror icons.
When Johnstone executes what Johnstone does best — please, watch Housebound — M3GAN is bulletproof. Ronny Chieng busts some comedic zingers as an overeager toy company bro who, when excited, shouts about kicking Hasbro “in the dick.” M3GAN was never meant to be played straight, which Cooper carries over from Malignant and Johnstone honors graciously. The more M3GAN’s devious gazes and sarcastic threats emerge, the more Johnstone relishes the concept’s apocalyptic implications when A.I. turns against its makers. The further M3GAN sells her superseding friendship directive paired with Cady, the quicker we’re gifted over-the-top bedside Sia serenades and exquisitely bonkers M3GAN personality upgrades. Did I even hear M3GAN tickling Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” on piano during a standoff conversation with Gemma? These are the moments that maketh M3GAN.
Best of Horror 2022