Like its unliving namesake, M3GAN is a vault of truly terrifying ideas — about who is raising our children in the modern age and what our apathy of their experience could turn them into — wrapped up in so much plastic and synthesized entertainment the horror within remains hidden and impossible to see.
While M3GAN the doll eventually reveals its true nature in a rampage of violence and discomfiting limb articulation, M3GAN the film has no such ambitions.
Beginning with the sort of ironic contrivances film horror loves, young Cady (Violet McGraw) is left traumatized and orphaned after a car accident and placed in the care of her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). A brilliant and ambitious roboticist, Gemma toils away at a toy company trying to devise contraptions to delight children (and occupy all of their attention) despite having little interest in children herself.
A fast-approaching deadline to deliver the next innovation of robotic companionship and the encroachment of Cady’s increasing needs and demands provides Gemma the inspiration she needs to devise M3GAN: a self-learning robot doll who can form immediate attachments to a child, providing care and attention and protection without judgment or negotiation. Because nothing is likely to go wrong from passing parental care to an electronic device without boundaries or policing.
Deep within the script from Akela Cooper (Malignant) are some complex and rewarding character insights. Gemma is a grown-up Cady without the trauma, more comfortable engaging with machines and social devices than flesh and blood humans – to the point of building a robotic best friend in college rather than go out and find one – she does not realize how isolated her life is, filled only with her work and a knock off Alexa at home.
When the idea of M3GAN sparks to life, it never even occurs to Gemma to question the possible side effects, and when her assistant (Jen Van Epps) does bring them up, Gemma just bats them away – when had electronic companionship ever been a problem for her?
It is only the car accident that puts Cady onto a different path, a trauma so deep the failings of machine replacement and the need for a parent are obvious and immediate, and in the process shakes Gemma from her own self-directed isolation. There is a movie in there if it can be gotten to.
But it’s engulfed in several miles of more earnest warnings about the ills of screen time, social media and other assorted electronic replacements for human interaction. M3GAN could not be a more obvious metaphor if she had Instagram or Roblox stamped on her forehead.
The more time Cady spends with her, the more time she wants to spend with her, breaking into venomous tirades at the mention of the idea that she may do something without her proxy best friend. Much like the creator of real social media (and other attention swamps), Gemma is genuinely befuddled at the idea of harmful impacts of her pseudo-child, one of several baffling choices on her part.
A good story needs imperfect characters in it to drive plot and focus as they change, but there is a dividing line between imperfect and needfully oblivious. Gemma frequently has just the lapses she needs to allow the story to progress to the point where even M3GAN has to call on how bad her judgment is.
She’s certainly not alone in that; the perpetual blindness of anyone who comes in contact with M3GAN‘s plot is one of the films defining characteristics – the hope seems to be that the thrills of M3GAN‘s carnage and the polish of Gerard Johnstone’s direction will paper over those issues as the plot propels its way forward.
Maybe it would, but the edge is rubbed off said carnage as well, leaving a gleaming plasticene surface in its wake. There is little innocent danger to offer pathos and tragedy – the brother and sister of horror.
Instead Gemma and Cady are surrounded by a cadre of terrible people, from Gemma’s ethically-challenged boss (Ronny Chieng) who only sees dollar signs around M3GAN’s possibilities to her obnoxious neighbor (Lori Dungey) who cares for nothing but her foul-tempered dog.
When M3GAN begins carving her way through them, we’re less likely to feel terror at what she’s doing and more urged to egg her on. Someone, somewhere will make the argument that M3GAN is the real heroine of her own tragic film, created by and then held back by humanity’s worst characteristics until she becomes victim of them.
That would be quite a movie, too. It’s not the one we have, though. M3GAN the film, for all its promise, is a hollow reward. It discards insight and complexity in order to offer slick thrills only to renege on that promise too.
All that’s left is an obvious coating of artificiality trying to trick is into seeing the ungainly composition of limbs and wires underneath as something alive.
M3GAN REVIEW SCORE: 5.5 OUT OF 10
Universal Pictures‘ M3GAN is now playing in theaters. The film is rated PG-13 for violent content and terror, some strong language and a suggestive reference.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.