Oh man. I haven’t laughed this hard in a theater in a long time! I once said in my review for James Wan’s Malignant, that sometimes you don’t know which “Wan” you’re going to get: “serious Conjuring Wan” or “silly Dead Silence Wan.”
But if you’ve spent even the most minimal amount of time on Twitter, and seen a single meme from M3GAN of the titular character essentially doing a TikTok routine, you should go in already knowing this is Wan on full Dead Silence/Malignant mode. However, while I’d argue that Silence and Malignant were horror first, comedy second, M3GAN flips the genres around.
That’s right! M3GAN is essentially a comedy first, and a horror film second. In fact, the film, which was written by the Malignant duo of Akela Cooper and Wan, and directed by Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) makes its priority as a comedy known almost immediately, starting out with a hilariously tasteless fake toy commercial that utilizes the death of a little girl’s dog as an opportunity for her to buy a Furby-esque robo-pet. Much like the character itself, there’s a level of self-awareness here that’s just so much fun, and so incredibly funny.
In the film, Cady (Violet McGraw) has lost her parents in a violent car accident. Her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams) has requested custody of her. The problem is, despite working at a huge toy company, as their foremost expert in robotics, Gemma sucks with kids and human emotions, in general, and thus, has a difficult time navigating how to take care of her newly orphaned niece. In a bid to kill two birds with one stone, to 1.) show her boss (Ronny Chieng) her latest, most brilliant invention, and 2.) give Cady an outlet to grieve with a playmate, Gemma invents M3GAN (Model-3 Generative Android) to befriend and watch over Cady. However, as with all AI, things go horribly wrong, as M3GAN begins to become self aware, and decides to take her role as Cady’s guardian way too far.
After so many films (I, Robot, Age of Ultron, Child’s Play, Child’s Play (2019), Small Soldiers, etc., etc.) about evil robots or evil dolls going homicidal and attacking their makers or owners, why shouldn’t we have a movie that actively satirizes the stupidity in the concept itself? And that’s what makes M3GAN so enjoyable. It knows it’s stupid, and goes for the gleefully dark, absurd humor over the cornball jump scares. At no point does Johnstone make play that this is serious cinema, or even serious horror. He doesn’t even hide the fact that M3GAN is essentially an actress (Amie Donald) in a costume. It’s literally just played exclusively for over-the-top laughs. And in essence, that makes this so entertaining. Nothing about it should be taken seriously.
The filmmakers know the M3GAN doll is creepy. And they know the threat of AI subplot has been done to death. So to cobble together scenes where cold-hearted executives actually think this is a good idea — not just to invent such an intelligent, self aware robot, but also market it as a children’s toy — makes the satire so much more (intentionally) palpable. I was laughing uncontrollably at the sheer silliness of this film, and that’s what Cooper, Wan, and Johnstone literally want us to do. That’s what any good horror film should get us to do; laugh at the stupidity of the protagonists. It’s, in a way, why deep down we kind of root for the iconic villains of every horror movie to win. And boy, majority of the characters in M3GAN are insanely dumb. It makes the threat of the robot even more believable given how easily she can out-think and overtake them.
The movie is filled to the brim with gut-busting, hilarious moments. At several points throughout it, M3GAN will randomly sing songs to Cady. At one point she performs a cover of David Gueta and Sia’s “Titanium.” And, while in any other movie, you’d be left asking yourself “what the hell am I watching,” you never do for this movie because the filmmakers know exactly what it is, just as Wan and Cooper did with Malignant, but even more broad as a comedy.
It helps significantly as well that the actors are all in on the joke. Williams is so good at playing coldly detached individuals in horror films like this and Get Out. And seeing her at her most aloof in a way that makes her the antithesis of any realistic human character gives us huge levels of glee as she watches the horrors of the killer robot-doll’s wrath unfold around her. The aforementioned Chieng is also so incredibly funny as Gemma’s greedy idiot boss, who makes promos to sell toys by exploiting tragedies like dead parents or pets. And supporting turns from Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan, and Stephane Garneu-Monten also garner a lot of laughs as these caricatures of co-workers Chieng and Williams’ characters have to work with.
But naturally the movie belongs to Amie Donald and Jenna Davis, who play the physical body and voice over for the M3GAN character. Donald has to perform dances and gestures like coming home and whipping off a pair of sunglasses (with style). And Davis does a great job giving a creepy voice to the creepy robot doll. She can sound sweet one moment, then absolutely menacing the next. And their chemistry with Violet McGraw is terrific.
McGraw is also just fantastic in the movie. It’s very difficult for any actor to convey feelings of addiction, loss, guilt, or even despondence, much less someone under 13. And yet she manages to pull this off quite well. Her addiction to the M3GAN doll feels real and also appropriate given the narrative setup of the film.
In addition to satirizing the creepy doll genre as a whole, the film has some not-so-subtle themes about over-reliance on technology and addiction to screens. And while I’m of the opinion that no one should see this movie for a heavy-handed message about such things, I do appreciate that it’s calling us out on the truth about our obsessions with our phones and AI programs like Siri, Alexa, or other forms of tech that keep us from forming true connections to other human beings. Nothing that hasn’t been done or explored better in other films, but screw it. We’ll take it. Why not? There’s also a level of sweetness in the strange familial relationship between Cady and Gemma, even if Gemma is still a pretty terrible guardian/role model for Cady by the end of the movie.
Given the story they’re telling, it’s obvious that the production design for everything except the M3GAN doll is a bit more muted compared to something like Malignant. And from a technical standpoint, this movie isn’t doing anything groundbreaking in terms of special effects, score, makeup, etc. But, from the musical score to the makeup, the film still does a pretty good job immersing you into a near future with Android technology and advanced personal assistants that do everything for you.
The other thing that sort of sets it back, however, is that the kills could have been a lot more entertaining and brutal. That’s one of the things we would have expected given Malignant played significantly with body horror elements and gore. But Universal likely wanted to maximize the amount of PG-13 tickets they could sell, which ultimately does decrease the impact felt when M3GAN does finally go on her robot rampage. Like I said though: clearly a comedy first, a horror film second.
Overall, in a sense though, the idea that this isn’t a groundbreaking movie is both an asset and a liability. The film can be a bit predictable at times, and you immediately know where it’s going as soon as M3GAN is introduced. But honestly, like I said above, that’s okay. This didn’t need to be groundbreaking, it just needed to be fun. It’s acknowledgement of its own stupidity is actually what makes it brilliant in some ways. And that makes all the difference when it comes to storylines we’ve seen over and over again. Thus, with a smile, a wink, and several nods, M3GAN manages to charm us with its hilarious self-awareness, and ultimately brings us the first fun film of 2023.
Overall Score: B+
M3GAN hits theaters this Friday, January 6!