I work in a grocery store that has a rather worthless robot named Marty that motors around looking for objects on the ground. It alerts associates over the store’s PA system, and we go hunt down Marty to pick up the objects before sending the robot off again. Marty is often in the way, and I’ve pushed and kicked that stupid robot too many times to count. Fortunately, robot technology hasn’t advanced to the level where I have to worry about Marty pushing back. I would hope that scientists never take us into that futuristic nightmare. Nevertheless, robots will be a part of our lives going forward, and some filmmakers like to explore their interaction with human beings. What if robots befriend you before taking over your life? That’s the premise of the sci-fi/horror film from Blumhouse Productions and James Wan’s Atomic Monster Productions. An advanced robotic toy can act as both friend and protector to a child. M3GAN explores the relationship between a smart robot companion and a girl that escalates into sentient robot girl gone wild.
Director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) brings to life the screenplay by Akela Cooper, who developed the story with Wan, also her collaborator on the bonkers Malignant. Gemma (Allison Williams) designs toys for a Seattle company called Funki. They had a huge success with a line of PurRpetual Petz, fuzzy toys that are clearly meant to remind you of Furbys. Gemma’s niece Cady (Violet McGraw) survives a car crash that kills her parents, and Gemma becomes her guardian. Unbeknownst to her boss, Gemma has developed a lifelike robotic doll named M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android). Gemma “pairs” M3GAN with Cady as a test subject and wins over her boss and toy industry buyers with an amazing demonstration of M3GAN’s abilities. Gemma hasn’t worked out all of the kinks, and M3GAN becomes overprotective of Cady to the point of anger and violence that goes unrecognized until it’s too late.
Williams rose to fame with Girls, but she also dabbled in horror with a little film called Get Out. Williams holds her own as one of a long line of movie scientists from Dr. Frankenstein to Seth Brundle to name two. McGraw teeters between cuddly teen and annoying brat as her character goes through grief and other changes. The rest of the cast, including Ronny Chieng as Gemma’s abusive boss David and Lori Dungey as Gemma’s bitchy neighbor Celia, provide fodder for M3GAN and what she’s going to do to them. With such an amazing creation on screen as M3GAN, the human actors just have to accept that moviegoers care more about M3GAN than them. Initial comparisons put M3GAN in the same category as Chucky, the murderous doll from the Child’s Play franchise. Less like Chucky, M3GAN is more like a mix between Alicia Vikander’s Ava in Ex Machina and The Terminator.
M3GAN has struck a nerve with audiences because the creation of the doll expertly mixes techniques to result in a creepy lifelike figure. The team’s best decision was to use young actress and dancer Amie Donald as a body double of sorts for almost all scenes in which M3GAN moves. A few sound effects of servo motors accompany her movements, but there’s no denying how real M3GAN appears to be. Donald delivers the infamous, fluid M3GAN dance that went viral. Amazingly, this imitated sequence lasts less than 10 seconds and appears almost entirely in the trailer. Actress Jenna Davis voices M3GAN with a sweet cadence that turns nasty at times, and she even sings a couple of songs with that same perfect tone. In addition to the CGI effects, the final piece of the puzzle that completes the illusion of M3GAN’s believability is the puppetry of Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse. Used for close-ups and dialogue, their animatronics rivals and probably surpasses many of the figures at Disney theme parks. M3GAN’s subtle facial moves, eye motions and blinking keep you on edge as you never know what she’s going to do or say next. I especially love how M3GAN’s hair goes frizzy when she’s mad, mean or dangerous and her eyes narrow to slits. It’s going to be hard to top the combination of elements that make M3GAN so unique. In the inevitable sequel, the filmmakers need to take the same approach.
M3GAN straddles that line between sci-fi and horror and acknowledges both genres with references and visual cues. When M3GAN first appears, she’s hooked up to wires on a frame with her limbs spread like Frankenstein’s monster that even calls to mind the robot Maria from Metropolis. It’s hard to sympathize with M3GAN’s victims when they act like complete jerks to Cady or Gemma. That’s how the writers reel you in. How can you fault a robotic friend who protects a child above all else? The violence keeps to a minimum with more being implied than actually shown. Originally rated and released as PG-13, the unrated version merely adds a few short seconds of F-bombs and blood spurts that took the film just out of that rating. M3GAN shoots for robotic action more than gore.
Although Cady’s tragedy takes her to Gemma, the story wastes a bit too much time on Cady’s grief and issues with a counselor as part of the custody of Cady. Who cares. Show more M3GAN! A subplot with a Funki worker sharing company secrets goes nowhere and should have been edited out before any extra footage of M3GAN. These faults don’t detract from a pulse-pounding finale that left me wanting more. Much like Gemma herself, the filmmakers didn’t realize the implications of what they created. I hope that they deliver more of what worked and expand M3GAN’s capabilities to another level in the next iteration.