A film review by Craig J. Koban April 11, 2023

M3GAN  jj
 

2023, PG-13, 102 mins.

Allison Williams as Gemma  /  Violet McGraw as Cady Ryan  /  Jenna Davis as M3GAN (voice)  /  Amie Donald as M3GAN  /  Jen Van Epps as Tess  /  Brian Jordan Alvarez as Cole  /  Ronny Chieng as David Lin  /  Stephane Garneau-Monten as Kurt  /  Michael Saccente as Greg

Directed by Gerard Johnstone  /  Written by Akela Cooper

M3GAN (not a typo) is the latest in the horror-thriller sub-genre involving (a) an A.I. infused robot that becomes self-aware and homicidal towards its human overlords and (b) a killer doll that's befriended by a child, leading to all sorts of thorny consequences.  

It comes from Blumhouse with a co-story credit from James Wan (co-creator of the SAW, INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING franchises) and seems largely inspired by the CHILD'S PLAY films to a large and sometimes distracting degree.  There's something undeniably streamlined and efficient about M3GAN as another entry in a long gestating group of films involving killer toys, and the manner that director Gerard Johnstone and his creative team try to embrace their story's inherent weirdness and cheesiness is commendable to a degree (this is a silly film that knows that it's a silly film).  Despite some strong production values and a relatively high creepiness factor, M3GAN emerges as too achingly formulaic and derivative, not to mention that - as a potential scarefest - I didn't find it all that terrifying.  Beyond that, its attempts at social/business satire are middling at best.

The film opens by introducing us to 9-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw), who tragically lost both of her parents to a dreadful car accident.  With virtually no other nearby living relative, she is sent to live with her Aunt Gemma (GET OUT's Allison Williams), who just so conveniently happens to be a leading robotics specialist and designer at the Seattle-based Funki Toys.  Her boss, David (Ronny Chieng), has been riding her to use the money and resources allotted to her to come up with the next great toy sensation, but secretly she's been using the funding behind his back to develop "M3GAN" (or Model 3 Generative Android), a life-sized child robot that looks and acts like a real life person thanks to the latest advances in artificial intelligence.  Gemma and her team think they've made it to the home stretch of their invention, which they hope will become the next omnipotent toy in every child's bedroom the world over.  Unfortunately, an early proof of concept test in front of Gemma's boss proves to be a failure, leaving him giving her the ultimatum to give up on M3GAN to work on something simpler, cheaper, and less hazardous.   

Maybe he has a point.   

Gemma's world is shaken by the appearance of her niece at her door, and she struggles in her new role as a surrogate mother to her.  Realizing that Cady is emotionally fragile and needs something to take her mind off of her parent's deaths, Gemma decides to throw caution to the wind and work out all of the bugs with M3GAN, leading to a final secret test that introduces the android doll to Cady, which proves highly successful.  M3GAN becomes programmed and linked to Cady, meaning that it will protect her and be by her side at all times and whenever required.  Despite the logical warnings of Gemma's boss and the concerns of Cady's child psychologist that she needs real bonds with real kids versus a robot (no kidding!), Gemma continues to let her niece get close and cozy with her new humanoid plaything.  Alas - and as is the case with all previous films of its kind - M3GAN begins to demonstrate unhealthily clingy behavior to her new childmate, not to mention that it becomes more highly self-aware, leading to it being able to ignore the commands and controls of Gemma and her development team.  Worse yet, M3GAN begins to show a dangerously unhinged level of protection towards Cady, which spills over with an ever increasing body count amassing for those that show the slightest level of hostility towards it.

 

 

The actual doll in M3GAN is a fairly compelling - if not problematic - creation.  Physically, it's rendered using a combination of practical visual effects, CGI augmentation, puppetry, and the voice and body work of Jenna Davis and Amie Donald respectively, and for the most part the illusion of her is thanklessly seamless.  The toy looks like a blonde human child, but with a chillingly expressionless stare that becomes even more unnerving when it's attempting to be docile and nurturing to Cady.  Not only can this doll belt out songs of encouragement to cheer up Cady, but it also becomes a babysitter and teacher rolled into one, reminding her to do things as simple and commonplace as washing up after using the bathroom or educating her on how to process grief.  In this respect, M3GAN becomes a non-stop companion to any child its imprinted on, leaving parents free to do whatever they want and when they want.  Gemma's company starts to see instant dollar signs at this prospect and fast-tracks M3GAN's expansion as the next it toy to hit store shelves, but - let's be honest - when does fast-tracking any A.I. powered being in any film ever end up working out alright?  Plus, why would any toy company ever produce a toy that has a virtually indestructible shell and has strength that would rival ten people combined?  Seems like a peculiar oversight, in my mind, especially if voice commands fail, then you're left with no real ability to shut M3GAN down in a pressure cooker situation.   

Obviously, I don't think that I have to embellish any further how much M3GAN swipes from the long-term CHILD'S PLAY franchise, with the one key difference her being that Chucky was just a toy that became possessed by the spirit of a madman killer, whereas M3GAN is a toy built up with A.I. right from the beginning that starts the film in friend mode and then goes full HAL-9000 with an ever increasing number of humans (and you know - you just know - that Gemma's annoying neighbor with the non-stop barking dog will be the first to be served up and slaughtered by the malfunctioning M3GAN).  Originality is not this film's strong suit, which requires the makers to up the ante when it comes to scares, gore, and satire, none of which it pulls off all that well.  With a meek minded PG-13 rating, M3GAN is unsurprisingly lacking in graphic violence, with most of M3GAN's kills occurring rather bloodlessly off camera (a film this preposterous really needed to own up to a more grisly R-rating and embrace its campy sensationalism).  With the violence being toned way down, the rest of M3GAN could have coasted by generating tension and suspense with the standoffs between Gemma and just about every other human versus this insane robot, but beyond one or two decent jump-scares there's very little - if anything - that truly got under my skin and chilled me to the bone here.  Since you can see where most of the film is headed with M3GAN (replete with telegraphed payoffs), most of the would-be scary moments are rendered pretty flatly.  Actually, there's one genuinely unsettling - and hilarious - scene when one of Cade's teachers sees M3GAN for the first time (realizing that she's not a real girl, but rather a robot toy) and she cries out "JESUS CHRIST!"  I know how she feels.

As far as the film's satire of the corporate business toy world, M3GAN doesn't display nearly as much savvy and fun with it as it thinks.  There are some juicy ideas here ripe for cheeky commentary, like greedy CEOs rushing a product out to the child masses that's not ready for prime time or how parents often use technology today as babysitters (in this film's case, M3GAN becomes a substitute for smart phones, tablets, and video games).  Most of the humor in M3GAN is pretty broad, leading to any form of sizeable satirical touches lacking a real ravenous and smart bite.  The whiplash-inducing tonal shifts in the film are hard to reconcile too: M3GAN wants to be an utterly ridiculous good time that (to be fair) does generate some big laughs, but then it segues from those moments to some seriously incongruent material about an emotionally devastated child that's coping with death for the first time.  M3GAN understands its limitless absurdity as an escapist B-movie pleasure, but it also wants to be deep and penetrating with its characters; this film wants to have its cake and eat it too.  As far as the usual crop of craptacular films that get unceremoniously dumped in the release purgatory that is January, M3GAN is a slight cut above the rest and is mostly made with slick proficiency as far as its genre is concerned.  But as a Chucky clone, it lacks true innovation and emerges as just a pale imitative poser instead of doing something worthwhile and interesting with its well worn premise.

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