M3GAN (2022)

Little girls are creepy, uncanny dolls are creepy, both have been frequently and successfully been transformed into horror icons in the past… por que no los dos? It’s a very solid pitch that’s been co-produced by Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, directed by Gerard Johnstone (a relative unknown), and written by the Malignant team James Wan and Akela Cooper. As if that inspiration wasn’t enough, the production and marketing team sprinkled in some TikTok friendly clips: What if the creepy girl robot doll did a silly dance as she murdered people?

It’s undeniably worked from a commercial perspective: Like Scream 5 last year, M3GAN (just pronounced “Megan”) has broken the “January horror movie” curse, earned excellent reviews, and made a buttload of cash. In M3GAN’s case, it’s little bits of cash dripping off the relentless Avatar 2 behemoth, but still enough to be a certified smash.

M3GAN operates in a horror register I generally enjoy: It’s much more interested in being entertaining than it is in being scary. It’s still, by narrative and aesthetic, very much a horror movie rather than a dark comedy, but there’s all of two or three jump scares, and even those are coated with a sheen of silliness. When this movie is leaning into its unhinged stabby doll scenes, it’s so perversely fun that it’s hard not to be smiling at the bloodshed.

The real kicker of that clause is the “when,” though, because M3GAN takes a long time to boot up. Too long.

The story follows Cady (Violet McGraw), a tablet-obsessed tween whose parents die in a car accident. The collision itself is something of a punchline — their argument about Cady’s screentime leading a distracted life becomes a distraction itself, which they realize just in time to get wrecked by a snow plow.

The momentum slows quite a bit after the opening scenes, which also include a Furby parody commercial. Cady is adopted by her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who is a cutting edge robotics engineer at a toy company. She’s working on a doll of the future, one that will render parenting irrelevant. You guessed it: M3GAN. At first, the invention works well, distracting Cady from her new-orphan grief. Then it works too well; Cady starts to resist anything in the world that isn’t her new playmate.

M3GAN is programmed to do whatever it takes to make Cady happy, and has apparently not been programmed with Asimov in mind, so she starts defending Cady with violence: First, it’s a nasty dog that bites her. Then it’s a cruel bully. And you can probably guess the rest.

It’s towards this stage of the movie that M3GAN becomes quite clever as satire. The movie’s obvious central thesis is that lazy parenting is destructive, especially using screens as substitutes for real child-parent bonding. We see Cady failing to cope with the real world as she’s glued to her tablet, Aunt Gemma fiddling away on M3GAN’s programming.

What struck me in the movie’s second half is that Johnstone, Wan, and co. snuck in a secondary parenting theme: don’t put so much pressure on your kids to do too much too fast. There is indeed a second “child” in the film, and it’s M3GAN herself. Gemma and her company advertise to the world that she is perfect and will solve your child’s needs. But M3GAN isn’t ready; she needs time to grow. Her arc is a standard serial killer descent-to-violence arc, and the movie lets us feel just a kernel of sympathy towards her… though, of course, “she” is not a “her” at all, but an “AI doll.

I was ready to proclaim M3GAN slightly underwhelming until its last half hour. It takes a long time to get to the payoff for a movie that needs to be zippy fun to work. But that final, vicious sequence really does make the drama leading up to it pretty worthwhile. There’s some outstanding kill scenes, but my favorite part of the climax is how much the movie references familiar creepy girl/creepy doll beats. The Ring’s screen demon gets a hat tip, as do The Shining and (of course) Child’s Play.

M3GAN herself/itself is an absolute triumph of production design. She’s played by a young actress named Amie Donald who is given some makeup and CGI to appear quasi-human. Donald does a great job of keeping her movements stiff and slightly alien, just enough that it’s always clear we’re looking at a doll. Jenna Davis provides the voice, a digitally-smoothed blend of comforting/creepy a la Amazon’s Alexa.

The film’s acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Williams is solid as the final girl and heroine, though I always remain distracted by just how damn beautiful she is. (She weaponized this trait of hers in Get Out. Here, it’s just incidental.) It’s never fun to pick on child actors, but I confess I found McGraw as Cady to be a major detriment to the film. She’s a bit of a blank slate, but not in an especially interesting or provocative way. Her occasional outbursts felt a bit unearned, and mostly she just stares blankly.

M3GAN never transcends its basic fun PG-13 horror framework the way that, e.g., Happy Death Day does, but the parts that work really do, especially near the end of the movie. I’d probably watch a sequel, and I’m not the only one: M3GAN 2.0 has already been greenlit for a 2025 release. Maybe Avatar 2 will be dethroned from the top of the box office by then.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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