There’s a scene mid-way through M3GAN where our protagonist has driven her troubled niece Cady to the first day of an alternative school. It seems necessary, since Cady has gotten overly attached to her robotic friend M3GAN, and she needs to socialize with other human children. The school’s teacher comes up to the car and cheerfully and kindly introduces herself to Cady, then asks if she’s come with her sister, at which point M3GAN turns to look at her, causing the teacher to involuntarily shout “JESUS CHRIST!”
That’s one of my favorite moments in this surprisingly good movie, because it perfectly captures the confidently silly and relentlessly sinister tone that makes the movie so much stronger than its premise would suggest.
Blumhouse and Universal have gone all-in on marketing the movie as a campy, creepy, successor to the “evil doll” subgenre of horror movie like Child’s Play and Annabelle. That’s a good call, since the promise of something silly and fun is what got me into the theater in the first place.1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch. But what makes M3GAN so unexpectedly clever is that it doesn’t settle for being a self-aware rehash of its too-familiar influences; nor a winking deconstruction; or even an undeservedly high-minded re-examination of them. Instead, it takes all of its familiar elements and uses them at face value, but combines and re-contextualizes them to make them just as uncanny and eerily not-quite-real as its villain.
And to be clear: there are a lot of familiar elements. In fact, I’d say that there’s essentially nothing in the premise, or in fact the movie itself, that feels completely original. Even if you’ve somehow missed the “evil doll” trend, and even the “evil child enters a peaceful home” trend, the whole notion of evil robots who gain sentience and go off on a murdering spree dates all the way back to the 1800s. It’s not just familiar, but predictable: I’d even say that you could read a synopsis of every single event in the movie, and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie for you.
That’s because the magic of the movie isn’t wondering what’s going to happen, but watching the inevitable play out around perfectly smart and reasonable characters who still don’t seem to appreciate just how wrong everything is.
I read a review that said that Allison Williams (as the protagonist) seems “checked out” throughout the movie, which I think is just missing the point to a colossal degree. Like the rest of the movie, her performance confidently combines a bunch of familiar character types. She’s almost but not entirely the protective mom who’ll defend her family no matter what the cost, from Child’s Play and Orphan. But she’s also the brilliant scientist who’s more comfortable with machines than with people, and also she’s Dr. Frankenstein. She has to remain sympathetic, but not too sympathetic, or the point of the movie would be lost. I was happy to see that Williams was an executive producer on this movie, since it feels like she went all-in on making a character that had to be both protagonist and villain.2I was reminded of Saffron Burrows’s character in Deep Blue Sea, who was also simultaneously protagonist and villain, but much less relatable or sympathetic. It’s still hilarious to me that focus-test audiences in 1999 were so upset about her going unpunished that the ending had to be obviously reshot.
And Williams — along with Violet McGraw as Cady, and the rest of the main cast — have to play familiar scenes completely straight-faced, without even a hint of self-awareness, for the movie to work. There are multiple scenes showing Cady and M3GAN bonding, and they’re presented as if they were just as earnest and heartstring-tugging as anything in AI: Artificial Intelligence. But they’re immediately obvious to the audience as wrong. Several of the scenes take place in a testing chamber, with various executives watching from behind a one-way mirror, as a reminder that none of it is “real.” But the movie still presents it as if were completely genuine emotion, never needing to ruin it with an artificial horror movie stinger, nor with a winking acknowledgement that they’re in on the joke.
It’s heartbreaking to see some reviewers assume that the filmmakers had no ambitions beyond making a new Chucky, and panning the movie as unimaginative or generic. It’s at least somewhat understandable, since the movie spends much of its time presenting itself as a much more straightforward movie, rarely turning into pure camp, pure melodrama, or pure horror, but instead existing as an uneasy combination of the three. As a result, scenes live in the Uncanny Valley every bit as much as the M3GAN’s over-large, dead eyes. How am I “supposed” to feel right now? Am they in on the joke? Am I even in on the joke? The movie quietly acknowledges that it’s all artifice and manipulation.
That makes for most of the movie’s funniest moments. There aren’t that many gags or comic relief moments, and they more often play out more sinister than funny. Instead, the laughs come from moments that seem familiar from more earnest movies and TV shows, but they’re so tonally off, or presented at the wrong time, that you laugh out of surprise. In my showing, the biggest laughs came when M3GAN would suddenly burst into song at a tender moment. And the very first shot of the movie was a hilariously tone-deaf toy advertisement that perfectly prepared the audience for what was to follow.
When I asked my fiancé if he wanted to see the movie with me, he immediately said, “Zero interest. That looks creepy AF.” Which is the correct response. Unlike her “evil doll,” “killer robot,” or “murderous child” predecessors, M3GAN doesn’t work as a seemingly innocent and friendly face hiding a sinister secret. She reads as inexcusably creepy from the moment you first see her. The whole dynamic of this movie — and its resulting allegory — is in the tension that none of the human characters seem to recognize just how creepy she is. That’s why the scene with the teacher is one of my favorites: not only is it a great laugh, but it’s a reminder of how we can immediately see that unchecked technology is dangerous and dehumanizing, but we tend to ignore that in favor of novelty and convenience. Making real human connections is difficult and exhausting! Why not let machines do it, since they’re almost as good as the real thing?
- 1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch.
- 2I was reminded of Saffron Burrows’s character in Deep Blue Sea, who was also simultaneously protagonist and villain, but much less relatable or sympathetic. It’s still hilarious to me that focus-test audiences in 1999 were so upset about her going unpunished that the ending had to be obviously reshot.