Sometimes I feel that a movie can be a victim of expectations. When I first saw the trailer for M3GAN and saw that it was going to be a horror movie released in January, I basically wrote it off. I’ve seen plenty of January horror movies before and most of them have been awful. Sometimes you get a pleasant surprise, like with last year’s Scream, but I chalked that up as an outlier. It’s almost impossible to walk into any movie completely and utterly blind, and with all of the Tik Tok marketing with the robot’s goofy dance, I thought I was going to hate it.
You know what? It wasn’t half bad. I mean, the theatre I went to with a friend of mine was pretty small, but the audience was laughing and my friend and I were chuckling and enjoying ourselves. M3GAN is this close to being a legitimately entertaining movie. It stumbles a fair bit as the movie progresses and loses a lot of its unique edge, but it’s fairly inoffensive. It’s not even a case of “it’s good enough for January.” It would be a decent movie at any time of the year.
Director: Gerard Johnstone
Release Date: January 6, 2023 (Theatrical)
Following the death of her parents in a car accident, Cady (Violet McGraw) is sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist who works for a local toy company. Gemma wants to try and comfort her niece, but she’s not exactly great at being emotionally available for her and has a deadline she needs to make. While her boss, David (Ronny Chieng), wants Gemma to come up with a new model of their most popular toy, Gemma instead puts her time and effort into making a new robot called M3GAN (Amie Donald/Jenna Davis) who would not only satisfy her boss but would act as a friend/caretaker for Cady and keep her company while she recovers. As time goes on, M3GAN develops a mind of her own and does whatever it takes to make sure that Cady is happy and will never be in danger from dogs, bullies, or anyone that would dare make Cady cry.
If there’s a single running theme throughout M3GAN, it’s that technology is slowly beckoning a new negative in the lives of children and families. M3GAN is used as a coping mechanism for Cady in the aftermath of her parent’s death and her overreliance on it for emotional support is one of the most fascinating elements of the film. The longer that Cady is exposed to M3GAN, either intentionally or not, the ruder she gets, the more argumentative she becomes, and she becomes actively violent and angry towards anyone who takes her toy/friend away.
The metaphor is pretty blatant, but it’s one that makes the film feel relevant. If you’re a parent, you have to admit, there are plenty of times when you may have used technology as a substitute for spending quality time with your child and used it as a makeshift babysitter or distraction. That’s the same attitude that Gemma approaches with M3GAN, but that’s not only where the metaphor ends. Gemma tries to take Cady to an outdoor school that doesn’t allow technology, but Cady is aggressively against it unless she can take M3GAN with her. Several employees at the toy company bemoan the fact that toys can’t just be simple anymore and need complex apps and products in order to properly entertain. You could even make the argument that it’s one of those technologically advanced toys that is responsible for her parent’s fatal accident. It’s a bleak look at how overexposed children are to technology and how reliant they are on it, but that’s what gives M3GAN its unique hook and identity.
The film is fairly well written, reuniting Maligant writers Akela Cooper and James Wan to deliver a story that knows when to be funny and satirical and has an emotional weight to it. Despite being billed as a horror movie, there are some genuinely moving moments within it, like a scene midway through where Gemma is using M3GAN and Cady for a presentation to toy executives and Cady has a breakdown over the death of her parents and M3GAN provides genuine comfort towards Cady. These moments shouldn’t hit as hard as they do, but they land well thanks in part to the performances by the actors.
Where the film begins to struggle is with the inconsistent tone. The very second that Cady and M3GAN have this emotional moment together, M3GAN begins to sing to Cady some autotuned pop song so poorly that I think was meant to be heartwarming but instead made my theater laugh wildly. After such a tender and kind moment, going into a musical number like this was some kind of a Disney movie diminishes the emotional impact of what came before it. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the filmmakers were trying to go for. In fact, M3GAN will sing a lot in this movie and every single time it just comes across as wince-inducing.
While we’re on the subject, M3GAN, herself, is probably the biggest hindrance to the film. If we look at her as a character rather than a prop, then her arc is painfully generic and lacks any real impact. There are obvious comparisons to be made between M3GAN and Chucky, but Chucky has a definable personality. He’s foul-mouthed, quips a ton, and has a moral code, but a sadistic streak that results in him manipulating whoever it takes just to kill as many people as possible. M3GAN, on the other hand, gets by on her designer looks and uncanny valley aesthetics. Her murderous intent only really comes into play later in the movie and it turns her into a slasher villain, but one without anything that makes her definable. She wants to kill to protect Cady, but half of the kills she’s ultimately responsible for can only tangentially be connected to that primary goal.
You feel like Cooper and Wan had a solid idea for M3GAN, but didn’t know how to stick the landing other than making her into a serial killer. The dialogue becomes clunky when M3GAN starts speaking like a slasher movie villain and not even the goofy TikTok dance is able to make the climax more interesting. The first two-thirds of the movie is a solid psychological drama that borders on psychological horror akin to movies like The Babadook. The grief that Cady feels hooks you, but once M3GAN starts revealing her murderous intentions all of that uniqueness is flushed down the drain.
M3GAN is still entertaining at the end of the day, but it could have been ever so slightly better. There’s a stinger at the end that teases this isn’t the end, and I would be down to see some kind of a continuation of the film provided they don’t just make M3GAN into another generic slasher movie villain. The characters and their internal drama really made the movie as entertaining as it was, as well as the blatant satire (I will never not love the corporate executive saying that M3GAN is great, even for children without dead parents). But when the film remembers that it needs a body count, the kills are underwhelming and as an antagonist, M3GAN, herself, leaves a lot to be desired.
But hey, it’s January, so it could have been a whole lot worse.