I remember the day I saw the trailer for M3GAN for the first time. I thought it looked kind of interesting, seemingly standard killer doll/robot setup and premise. But then…but then M3GAN herself started doing that dance. Bizarre, hypnotic, campy. That small moment elevated my interest in the film. In no time at all, it was all over social media. Instant hype. But would this film live up to that hype? Well, mostly.
M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android) is a toy designed by brilliant roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) to be a best friend and protector for her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), who’s parents have just died in a horrible accident. At first, things seem like they’re going well. M3GAN is a positive influence on Cady and helps her get over the loss, even if her attention seems to be all-consuming. But it doesn’t take long until M3GAN is taking her directive to protect Cady to murderous extremes, targeting anyone who threatens Cady — or her ability to protect Cady — in any way.
Right out of the gate, M3GAN establishes a distinct mood and expectation. The opening scene of the film is a commercial for Purrpetual Pets robots, the best-selling toy at Funki, the company Gemma works at. Billed as a pet that won’t die (and explicitly stating it will outlive the user), framed around some exploitative and mercenary scenes of a small girl mourning her dead dog, it’s cheerful, pitch perfect late 80s vibe doesn’t just clash with the relatively heavy framing. It speeds headlong into it as enthusiastically as possible.
It would be a mighty task for the film to continue that border-of-bad-taste, black comedy vibe for the entire runtime. And honestly, it would probably be pretty exhausting. So it’s both a good and bad thing that we don’t get 100 minutes of elbow-nudging cynicism. But the film rarely reaches those same heights until its balls to the walls climax, which can sometimes make parts of the film feel relatively uneventful.
Which is not to say that the film isn’t entertaining from start to finish. What we have here is a stealth satire of 90s techno-horror cinema repackaged for a modern crowd and with the benefit of progress. Thirty years ago, a film like this would have seemed rather ridiculous. Today, the concept of a robot like M3GAN existing is frighteningly plausible. That doesn’t stop the film from becoming ridiculous, mind you, but it does mean that when the film goes for camp, it’s with full intention and awareness.
Writer Akela Cooper is responsible for the brilliantly WTF Malignant, which should tell you all you need to know about where M3GAN (both the film and character) are heading. Like that film, this one builds slowly albeit much more quietly, introducing new quirks in M3GAN’s behavior one at at time, even during the first scenes. Early on, we watch Gemma and her team working on a prototype for the android that’s essentially just a robot frame with a silicone mask for a face. The face freezes in an unnatural expression, but as the conversation in the room continues around it, it’s big blue eyes slowly move back and forth to follow the speakers. It’s both subtly absurd and subtly unnerving in equal measures, forecasting what’s to come.
It takes a bit too long for M3GAN herself to finally appear, but when she does the movie finally takes off. Played by Amie Donald, voiced by singer Jenna Davis, and enhanced with CGI by (of all things) WETA Workshop, M3GAN is captivating immediately. She skirts the uncanny valley, her toes right on the border at all times. Donald’s movements are fluid but restricted by how a robot’s joints and servos would respond. Davis’ voice is innocent and sweet but just a bit too precise for comfort. Her face is an exaggerated porcelain doll that’s meant to evoke classic toys but also brings to mind the maudlin “big eyes” artwork of Margaret Keane.
Then there’s that dance. Trust me when I say that it makes only slightly more sense in the context of the actual film than it does in the trailers, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the apotheosis of both the film and the character herself. It’s when the film crosses the line from sort of campy to “yaaaas” levels of campy. The chase scene immediately following it is played for comedy, even during its bloody, stabby final moments. From there, the film goes gleefully off the rails, finally becoming the gloriously over-the-top thing we all thought we were getting from the trailer.
However, there is the fact that the sequence of events we see is pretty predictable; the film doesn’t do anything new with the killer doll formula. What makes it rise above is M3GAN herself. Her evolution from quiet companion to violent guardian happens in steps so small that it seems natural. As M3GAN learns and develops new subroutines, her personality begin to emerge, and Davis’ vocal performance gets more mature, nuanced, and menacing. By the time we get to the third act, M3GAN has fully come in to her That Bitch phase, and it becomes difficult not to root for her.
Ironically, M3GAN has more of an evolution than any of the human characters, the only ones of any real notice being Gemma and Cady. There are plenty of other supporting characters, and nobody in the cast does a bad job, but the script doesn’t do much with any of them. That’s likely on purpose; the rest of the characters are basic support and/or killer robot fodder. They serve narrative function, but there’s no real point to making them more than that.
That being said, Allison Williams and Violet McGraw do a good job in their roles, and the dynamic between them becomes more and more tangled as the film goes on. Gemma isn’t equipped to handle being a parent, and Cady has just been through probably the worst thing that could happen to a kid. When Cady imprints on M3GAN and becomes emotionally dependent on her, it’s both a reflection of Gemma’s own under-developed emotional intelligence and a statement on our reliance on gadgets to make ourselves feel whole. At first, Gemma is happy to turn over her guardianship duties onto M3GAN, but when the robot starts freezing her out of Cady’s life, it snaps Gemma to attention. Williams’ technique is restrained but very effective here, and she makes Gemma a more sympathetic character than she’s written to be.
McGraw especially has to deal with some scenes that are intentionally uncomfortable, showing both remarkable vulnerability and volatility. Her meltdowns are epic, but her sad moments engender immediate compassion. Her early scenes with M3GAN are even heartwarming, even while we realize that the robot character is the more equipped than the entire human cast together to help a grieving child process their loss.
But these moments, when the film feels like it wants to be About Something, are also where it starts to become shaky. We didn’t come to this film for messages about the relationship between humanity and technology or lessons in emotional development. We came here for our new killer robot queen. There’s an occasional air of pretentiousness that seeps through the film. It could generously be described as part of a spoof of self-important horror films, especially ones from decades prior, but it sometimes gets a bit too heavy-handed for that to be the case. It’s when the film tries to make a statement that it ends up becoming less interesting.
Thank goodness then that it never lingers on that too long before pivoting back to the film’s reason to be: M3GAN herself. We have on our hands here a new icon of the horror genre, a deliciously unholy combination of Hal 9000 and Chucky, glammed up like an American Girl Doll gone bad. Keep your demonic nuns and haunted dolls; THIS is the character who deserves their own franchise, terrorizing a rotating cast of humans with wit, camp, and some killer dance moves.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B