M3GAN

Pedigree is perhaps a strange thing to cite when talking about the latest murdering doll movie, but pedigree is precisely what made so many people perk up when they heard about M3gan. As soon as you got past the strangely comical image of a dancing robot, a hero of modern horror-comedy emerged: screenwriter Akela Cooper.

Okay, one great screenplay doesn’t make you a hero, but did you see Malignant? It was an audaciously bonkers horror film, goofy in all the right ways, and as soon as you learned Cooper’s follow-up involved a perfectly coiffed, devious little automaton it seemed another vicious, goofball of a movie was right around the corner.

And on top of Cooper’s presence is her pairing with director Gerard Johnstone, a guy who took a surprisingly long time to capitalize on the equally strange Kiwi film Housebound. Then there’s the actress who perfectly understood the assignment in Get Out, Allison Williams. And finally there’s M3gan herself, a high tech update on every doll whose too intimate connection with a child has violently warned us to parent our own kids.

The foundation of M3gan was so sturdy it seemed doomed to build too much anticipation, and in certain corners (of which many film critics like myself are a part of) the hype had reached a fever pitch. So when it finally reached the big screen, starting off with a garish fake ad before jumping right into a cockeyed take on parental death that winks at the Disney plot staple, I could feel myself let out a deep breath. The tone felt right, a meticulously mix of violence and comedy that doesn’t pull either of those punches, and that strangest of joys is maintained throughout M3gan.

The story is simple enough to not take up much time. There’s the requisite arrogant oaf, Gemma (Williams), who creates a robot capable of learning from its environment. The idea was that it would allow for more nuanced and interactive play with children, but in reality, it causes the titularly named doll to build a murderous mind of its own. While still in the testing phase Gemma gives M3gan to her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), who she has taken custody of after her sister and brother-in-law passed. Gemma was not prepared for a child, especially one who suddenly and violently lost her parents, and M3gan quickly learns to fill the nurturing void Cady desperately needs.

Of course this develops into an unhealthy relationship, and of course M3gan takes her protection duties too far. As bodies begin piling up Gemma is quizzical. She knows there’s something off with the doll, but murder? Surely not! We’ve seen M3gan do the deed with relish, though, and that is how the film’s bread and butter comedic premise coalesces: that pathetic humans can’t keep up with the hijinks of a 4-foot tall, prissy-looking doll, and she knows it. 

For most of the film you’re rooting for M3gan as she takes out the bevy of awful human beings she encounters. The film pulls off the essential trick of making the murders fun because the soon-to-be-dead sort of deserve it, and while they aren’t gory kills (the film gets a PG-13 rating in the US), it’s fine because violence isn’t all this movie relies upon for thrills. It knows that peculiarity can get the hairs on your neck to stand up as well, and the strange movements and perfectly timed mechanical sound design of M3gan give every moment she’s onscreen an inescapable sense of the uncanny valley.

Eventually the film must turn serious, though, a pivot that is surprisingly deft given the silliness that precedes it. That’s because seeds of real issues were in there, from Gemma’s misunderstanding of what parenting entails to the harm done to Cady by this failure. You were rooting for M3gan this whole time, but you were also rooting for Gemma and Cady, if only because Cady deserves a better existence than either Gemma or M3gan was giving her. M3gan had veered too far off course to be redeemed. Gemma still had a chance, so when the inevitable final encounter between the surrogate parents finally occurs, it’s everything you want this Judgment of Solomon-esque morality tale to be (including the old testament brutality). 

That you know this is where M3gan is headed the entire time isn’t a detriment. Films like this aren’t about reinventing the wheel. They’re about relishing the wheel, breaking down its elements with a nod and a laugh. Camp, the true nature of this horror-comedy, requires that the performer know its target precisely, and M3gan knows precisely what it’s sending up.

Release: available now in theaters
Director: Gerard Johnstone
Writers: Akela Cooper
Cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Ronny Chieng

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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