Review: ‘M3GAN’ is a G00d horror comedy

Almost every day for the past few weeks my home has been invaded by uninvited visitors. One evening a little girl appeared who shared a name with my eldest daughter; she roamed my living room on battery operated roller skates. Then a remote controlled monster truck shaped like a shark appeared; it tore through the living room with more horsepower than the car I drove in high school. Just a few days ago, our family added two new “pets”: Colored fish that spring to eerie robotic life when placed in a tank of water.

They are toys. And during the holiday season, homes like mine are filled with strange new amusements that delight children and confuse – if not outright annoy – adults. So while the beginning of January is historically not the best time to release a new Hollywood film, it is an ideal moment for a film like M3GANwhich turns these quirky, battery-powered toys into a cautionary horror story about our collective hunger for distractions from the stress and pain of real life.

Certainly the little girl at M3GAN‘s center deserves a break from stress and pain. Nine-year-old orphan Cady (Violet McGraw) is sent to Seattle to live with her workaholic aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is an inventive and ambitious toy designer. She is clearly in touch with her inner child, but she never quite got the hang of relating to actual children. When this sullen, traumatized girl shows up in her well-decorated home, Gemma has no idea what to make of her.

She finds an answer in her work. When Cady likes an old robot her aunt built in college, Gemma decides to ignore the orders of her obnoxious boss (Ronny Chieng), who just wants her to throw away cheap junk, and instead completes a prototype that he had already asked her to mothball: A life-sized robot girl who can interact with her owner through a highly advanced artificial brain. The prototype will be “M3GAN”, a four-foot-tall doll with near-lifelike skin, wavy golden hair, a smart beige dress, huge blue eyes, a cheerful voice and, by the way, an almost indestructible titanium body and the ability to perfectly imitate sounds she hears around him.

You see the pictures of M3GAN in this article and you hear that premise and you immediately think Child’s play meetings The Terminator. And finally, that’s it M3GAN becomes. On the way, however, the script by Akela Cooper (from a story by Cooper and producer James Wan) is a bit funnier than your standard slasher fare. Director Gerard Johnstone has a wicked sense of humor, and until M3GANIn the last few scenes, the film works less like a horror film than a very dark comedy about parenting, marketing and greedy corporations.

The film’s early sequences are punctuated by fake advertisements for Gemma’s toys, all faithful to the bizarre creatures currently taking root in my own children’s playrooms. (None, arguably, are as weird as the robo-fish that flops around every time my kids submerge it in water.) And Johnstone even has some wry fun with poor Cady’s horrific story and with Gemma’s eagerness to outsource her parenting responsibilities to M3GAN. The doll’s programming allows her to dispense folk wisdom, chase Cady (in a sweet and patient way) to flush the toilet or wash her hands, and even sing her a lullaby when the mood strikes.

Of course, M3GAN—embodied by actress Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis, and apparently augmented by a whole lot of animatronic special effects—begins to take her role as surrogate babysitter so seriously that she watches anyone who interferes with Cady’s happiness, even temporarily or for that matter greater good, as a threat. And when they happen, no one is safe.

The premise of this deranged, homicidal, yet strangely loving doll is ridiculous, and Cooper and Wan’s story treats it appropriately. They have previously collaborated on the horror film from 2021 Malignant, a delightfully bizarre thriller about a woman plagued by nightmarish visions of actual murder. The concept was unusual, but the film’s twists in the third act were absolutely wild; that movie seemed designed less to make people scream in horror than to scream in disbelief and sadistic pleasure. In her best moments, such as when Cady begins to trust and like M3GAN more than Gemma and demands that her doll accompany them on a trip to a new school, M3GAN achieves a similarly outlandish mood: not so much terrifying as eerily funny.

It’s helped enormously by McGraw and Williams, both of whom are willing to push their characters into abrasive and even unsympathetic territory, which is key to the success of a dark horror comedy where audiences have to start rooting for—or at least not hero likes — the “monster” at the center of the story. While M3GAN is clearly destined to be an evil killbot from the start, she’s also sometimes the film’s most likable character, thanks to her undying loyalty to Cady.

Ultimately, M3GAN becomes less of a demented protector and more of a stock slasher villain, and at that point M3GAN becomes more routine and less interesting. Until then, the movie is miles better than the junk that typically comes out this time of year. While most of 2022’s holiday toys are destined to be dumped in storage bins or even trashed within weeks, I have a feeling M3GAN going to last much longer than that. Just don’t let her near my kids.

MEANING: 6/10

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