‘M3gan’: Killer Robot Just Wants to Play in Bloody Satire About Our Tech-Obsessed Times
It’s almost a tradition now for the New Year to kick off with a horror offering. A good killer robot movie is a nice way to ease into a fresh calendar, especially when featuring some bloody humor. Blumhouse’s “M3gan” is another variation on the murderous doll premise, but pulled off with enough visual style and cackling satire. It avoids being too self-serious while disguising its popcorn spirit with a pretty simple warning. We’re letting the kids be raised by our gadgets, and eventually all that technology is going to turn on us. Standard futuristic paranoia, yet sold well by the title character, who is one of the year’s first strong creepers.
An opening tragedy involving a snowstorm and car crash leaves Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned and under the care of her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is an engineer working for Funki Toy, which has developed a line of furry toy fuzzballs now being copied by the competition, so they need something new. She has already dropped $100,000 on a robot prototype no one wants. It also turns out Gemma is not the best adult guardian, but her self-realization of not giving Cady enough attention drives her to invent a robotic companion, M3gan (Amie Donald). The name is an abbreviation for Model 3 Generative Android. Built into an eerie, life-like girl of silicon skin, M3gan bonds with Cady and becomes the perfect buddy and babysitter. She also wows Gemma’s hyper greedy boss, David (Ronny Chieng). As plans are made to mass produce M3gan, the robot starts becoming dangerously attached to Cady, who wants no other friends or fountains of advice. The AI creation is willing to protect that bond at any bloody cost.
This is a confident work of self-aware escapism by director Gerard Johnstone, working from a story by James Wan, the “Saw” and “The Conjuring” director who is also producing. But it is the Blumhouse stamp that is all over this wicked entertainment. It’s a paranoid tech scare in line with the studio’s stylishly enjoyable titles like “Upgrade” and “The Invisible Man.” There’s no philosophical space for questioning the nature or potential of artificial intelligence, the moment M3gan turns on, we know there’s going to be trouble. With dark hilarity, Johnstone sets up multiple episodes where we sit back and await the carnage. Gemma’s neighbor refuses to do something about her vicious dog, which then gets a zoom in stare from M3gan worthy of “The Omen,” and you feel what’s coming. Any bullies at a camp Gemma makes Cady attend should be more than careful lest they meet a horrific fate. M3gan is your clingy friend who will do anything for you, except she’s made of a metallic skeleton equipped with radar.
And yet, this isn’t a brainless movie. Much B horror is all about sneaking in a thesis statement. “M3gan” is basically warning you to stop letting the iPads, iPhones and computers do all the parenting. Allison Williams, from Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” is not set up as a victim. She doesn’t want to admit to herself that deep down she’s fine with a robot spending time with Cady, which leaves her free to do her own thing. Imagine if your device could walk and talk, sing to your child and even record their memories for storage. Not a bad deal, right? But then try prying Cady away from M3gan. The effect is pulled off with eerie humor reminiscent of “Child’s Play.” M3gan is the well-dressed blonde from hell, with a vacant stare and rather warm smile. Amie Donald’s performance is quite impressive because she gives the robot a sense of identity, ranging from menacing to loving.
Johnstone is self-aware enough to let the movie’s twisted premise run wild. Plenty of winks abound at the classics. A chase through the woods has M3gan run like the infamous deleted spider walk from “The Exorcist.” She croons Cady to sleep with a hilariously demented rendition of “Titanium,” which sounds taken out of a Disney nightmare. When the situation comes to a head, M3gan will also be able to hijack cars, commit intricate murders and cover ups, and fashion a machete out of office tools. None of it bores and is stylishly filmed by Peter McCaffrey and Simon Raby, with an effectively intense score by Anthony Willis. Killer doll movies can turn out to be truly bad in the tradition of “The Boy.” There were also the “Annabelle” movies which at least became progressively better after the awful initiator. “M3gan” is more science fiction than sheer horror, with a “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” angle to its premise.
As with most Blumhouse romps, we get the sure sense at the end that the story is far from over. The good thing about robots as plot devices is that they can keep coming back. All one needs is some mad mind to build the next one. Yet it must be said that part of why “M3gan” also works well is the quality of its performances. Allison Williams and Violet McGraw truly give it their all and Amie Donald’s electric-tinged voice will stay in your memory the next time you look at an inanimate object with a human face. Vicious bits of satire top it off. Funki’s fuzzball line of gadgets, PurrpetualPetz, are munching, pooping manifestations of those Tamagotchi pets that were a craze at the turn of the millennium. For a while now our devices have ruled our lives. With laughs and scares, “M3gan” imagines the products turning on their owners with gleeful murder shining in electro eyes.
“M3gan” releases Jan. 6 in theaters nationwide.