Nothing says kicking off a new year at the movies quite like an AI-driven robot toy singing a haunting lullaby rendition of a Sia song a few hours after said robot violently attacks a mopey child bully.
Before the pandemic caused the movie industry to throw out the playbook on theatrical releases, January was a month notorious for its low-quality new releases. Traditionally, January fare includes awards season contenders hoping to gain momentum as the year barrels toward guild awards and the Oscars. But it also often includes lazy genre programmers hoping to make a quick counter-programming buck against Oscar hopefuls and Christmas blockbuster season holdovers.
January 2023 might be our official return to these programming practices, with titles like M3GAN and the Gerard Butler action drama Plane on the horizon. Except…is it too optimistic to believe that January could become a good month for the horror-thriller genre? January 2022 brought us the fifth Scream installment, a film I found very enjoyable. Now, we have M3GAN, the James Wan-produced lite horror outing from director Gerard Johnstone. And it is a fun time at the movies.
Johnstone has worked in New Zealand television, and is most well-known for his horror comedy Housebound. Housebound is a film that has a contingent of fans, and it has a distinct personality and a great sense of tone. M3GAN, an ostensible horror comedy (although I haven’t seen it being billed as such), greatly benefits from this control of tone. The film is written by Akela Cooper, who wrote 2021’s zany Malignant, and he is another piece in this tonal puzzle. M3GAN is less off-the-wall than Malignant, but it benefits from a script that never takes its material too seriously (while also never fully sacrificing the emotional crux of the story).
M3GAN is like the easy listening music of horror, and this is mostly a compliment. It follows a robotics engineer, Gemma (Allison Williams), whose new toy design is an AI-powered doll. M3gan (voiced by Jenna Davis) learns from her surroundings, and she is programmed to be tied to a single user. Her prime directive is essentially to be this user’s mentor, playmate, friend, confidant, and protector.
When her sister dies tragically, Gemma takes in her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), but she is too enveloped in her work to properly be present. With a state-appointed psychologist breathing down her throat, Gemma conceives of a way to combine her work with her new guardianship duties by linking Cady to M3gan as a test case. And, to no viewer’s surprise, M3gan quickly goes rogue.
As M3gan adapts to her environment and identifies potential threats to Cady’s (and her own) safety, Gemma succeeds in selling her boss and the company board on the M3gan prototype. The toy company is ready to roll out this novel technology, and fast. The only problem is that M3gan is proving to be a legitimate danger to those around her.
M3GAN thrives most when it leans into the campy menace and the cartoonish uncanny valley of M3gan. Set pieces will place the robot ominously in the frame, give her pithily sinister lines, and make her jerkily dance as she stalks her prey. It is silly and just exciting enough to propel the film forward. All the while, everyone appears to be in on the same joke, which is that this is just a bit too silly to be taken seriously as a horror film.
Wan’s name in the credits makes sense for this, as his films are almost always crafted around the idea that a set piece can (and maybe should) be a schlocky carnival sideshow. Johnstone and Cooper appear to be the right fit for this formula, too. Not to mention the cast, with supporting performers like Ronny Chieng and Lori Dungey gleefully taking on caricature-inflected characters to hilarious results.
If your expectations for M3GAN are calibrated just right, then this will be a light and fun experience. The main element dragging this experience down is the rating. For a PG-13, this is fairly gnarly, but it is clearly cutting around what could and probably should have been a go-for-broke, Malignant-style R-rating. The set pieces are constructed in a way that feels like the film wants to push this goofy material to the next level of Grand Guignol spectacle. Instead, these sequences are forced to include cutaways and framings which obfuscate the action. I’m not saying the film needs to be gory, but it is slightly disappointing that when the film appears ready to put the foot on the gas, it eases off and allows the set pieces to plateau.
I suppose while we are talking about the film’s shortcomings, I could also mention the lunacy of the film’s technology and the wild depiction of computer programmers and engineers (who certainly would not talk to their technology the way these characters do). But this is a minor flaw in an already tonally amped up film. Watching Allison Williams logically engage with this odd little AI would simply be less enjoyable. Real-world technology has more horrifying implications than M3GAN is going to address, anyway. We might as well chuckle at the little robot girl who can calculate people’s emotions and who has a bloodlust for mildly mean people.
As always, thanks for reading!