Principal Cast : Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps, Stephane Garneau-Monten, Lori Dungey, Amy Usherwood, Jack Cassidy, Michael Saccente, Samson Chan-Boon, Kira Josephson, Renee Lyons.
Synopsis: A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own.
You know what there isn’t enough of in this world? No, not peace, love and kindness. Nope, none of that shit. What the world needs more of is scary killer talking doll movies. Sure, we’ve had countless Child’s Play franchise films – not to mention an actual television series – starring red-headed devil doll Chucky, but as far as killer doll films go post-millennial output has been sparse to say the least. Producing wunderkind team Jason Blum, from horror studio Blumhouse, and James Wan (Insidious, Saw, The Conjuring franchise) have unleashed a tech-savvy update on the automated doll subgenre, M3gan, in which we again revisit Jeff Goldblum’s line from Jurassic Park: just because they could, doesn’t mean they should. A toy company employee creates an AI-driven doll to help her grief-stricken niece, only for the doll to become self-aware and take the role of protector to a deadly new level.
Following the sudden death of her parents in a car crash, young Cady (Violet McGraw) is sequestered to live with her aunt, toy company tech nerd Gemma (Allison Williams – Get Out), where she struggles to process her grief. Gemma, herself a stranger to being a parent, is in the midst of trying to design a new product for her employer, toy company CEO David (Ronny Chieng); that product becomes M3GAN, a four-foot tall animatronic doll with significant AI learning ability (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) which works well until the creepy metal and plastic creation, which is now imprinted on Cady as her primary focus, takes on the role of protecting the girl with deadly consequences.
Now, before you go and think that M3gan is some kind of revolutionary horror film that resets the bar for the killer toys genre, I’m here to tell you that is doesn’t. Below its slick surface-level cleverness and futuristic AI subtext, there’s a pretty cliched sensibility about this movie. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, although perhaps were it a little cleverer it might have had something smarter to say about the ubiquity of technology and the potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence, instead of just half-assing it and at one point refusing to dig into the meat of this subplot. Killer robots have been a staple of pulp sci-fi since at least the 50’s, when nuclear technology and the rise of scientific advancements started to spur creatives in film as to what might make terrifying monsters. Sometimes, the robots were benign and then turned bad (The Day The Earth Stood Still’s Gort), and other times they were just bad bad (Cameron’s Terminator, for example), or simply misunderstood (The Iron Giant). Throw in something as ostensibly cute as a kid doll, a dash of creepy near-real animatronic designs, and some sweet little kills that had me howling, and M3gan delivers simplistic crowd-pleasing fare that doesn’t ever try and perpetuate the discussion. Asimov, this ain’t.
Written by screenwriter Akela Cooper (James Wan’s Malignant), M3gan derives its terror from a singular grief. Young Cady’s parents are killed and she’s taken to live with her single, not-a-parent Aunt, played with glorious dullardship by Allison Williams. Gemma is a typical intelligent science nerd – she knows her way around circuits but anything resembling interpersonal skills and she’s screwed. Trying to bring a sense of closure to the grief stricken Cady, she gives life to M3gan (the acronym stands for Model 3 Generative Android), and makes the critical choice to give the doll superior learning capabilities and an implacable protective rigidity. Anyone who makes Cady sad, angry or in anyway uncomfortable finds themselves the target of M3gan’s eventual violent streak, which means there’s a few people up for a bloody end by the time the film concludes. It’s annoying, however, that the more intellectual subtext of this kind of scientific methodology isn’t examined in more details, but then it’s a horror-thriller and we aint got time to waste on boffins. We wanna see M3gan kick ass. And she does, albeit in a very watered-down PG way.
The film is definitely violent, but it never truly goes for broke with M3gan’s killer ways. I mean, she tears a kid’s ear off before causing him to be hit by a car, and she does some dark shit to Gemma’s insolent next door neighbour, but the blood and gore is far from excessive and you have to imagine a lot more than you get to witness; sometimes this makes for a more evocative film, but M3gan’s tonal shifts and mainstream aesthetic ensure the raw carnage is toned way, way down. The visual effects are really very solid, from legitimate animatronics to CG to (in the case of M3gan herself) a young girl in a dress, the film certainly looks quite polished, with director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) making the most of his respectably low budget. It certainly looks and feels like they spent way more than the reputed $12m production budget. Peter McCaffrey’s crisp Jerry Bruckeimer-esque cinematography also assists, giving the film a hugely effective visual sheen that elevates the look.
M3gan is a film designed to please crowds and invite multiple sequels. Although not setting up any future films, you can see the foundation of a series of increasingly bananas films to come from this franchise (a sequel has already been greenlit as of writing this review in early 2023) and I would welcome more of these kinds of salacious, easy-cheesy horror films if I can have them. It doesn’t quite have the killer blow many other Blumhouse productions have had (James Wan himself has proven what you can do with very little), and I’d have liked this film to go a little harder with the violence – if you’re going to have a psychotic killer robot doll, why neuter it? The titular M3gan is, however, brilliantly realised and makes for a really creepy modern villainess, so have at it, I say. Hardly revolutionary, M3gan will please in the most base and primal manner, so grab a beer, some pizza and some mates, and enjoy.