“A sharp and thoroughly absurd movie with a decidedly vicious streak.”
by Ken Bakely
All things considered, there are very few obvious, front-and-center jokes in Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN, but it’s quite frequently, deeply, incisively funny all the same. The reason is the obvious chasm: its titular character, arriving decades after so much of horror – and particularly the slasher movie – has loaded itself with postmodern humor, is completely mirthless. M3GAN (voiced by Jenna Davis with motion capture work by Amie Donald) finds absolutely nothing about what she does amusing, she barely finds it gratifying, and she has absolutely no real motive. She is a stone cold killing machine. She is also a doll made to resemble, and be marketed to, a child. At its best, the film understands it doesn’t need to elaborate on this. This carries it on its own. M3GAN does not need to be funny.
She is invented out of desperation – as Gemma (Allison Williams), an engineer at a toy company, desperately tries to placate her grandeur-deluded boss (Ronny Chieng) in his search for a breakthrough, she creates M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android) as an AI-driven robot companion for children. She pairs the prototype with Cady (Violet McGraw), her young, recently orphaned niece who is now under her care. The technology is marvelous – M3GAN can converse with ease, enforce good behavior, and form close bonds with her assigned human companion. But without any time for safety testing, M3GAN’s one-track mind of defending Cady becomes troubling. The robot will act to preserve this bond. She will not let anyone get in the way of it, and naturally, if such a problem does arise, she will do everything in her power – which, as an advanced robot, is quite a lot – to completely eliminate it.
There’s nothing inherently funny about this setup, either, but it is a movie that, in totality as a horror comedy, generally plays more toward the latter than the former. Akela Cooper’s script (from a story credit she shares with James Wan) can never be explicitly funny, because then it loses the sardonic joke that lies at the very core of M3GAN. As a director, Johnstone is guiding this material – in all its lumbering combinations of frights, clear-eyed satire, and yes, earnest interest the challenges and traumas that have brought the human protagonists here in the first place – over a very thin sheet of ice, but his deft handling keeps it from ever breaking through. The film is accomplished and forthright. The PG-13 thrills are slickly competent, and the cast is game to handle it. Two performances demonstrate this well: on one side, Williams’s Gemma is direct and sincere as she tries to bring Cady into her life before all hell breaks loose; there’s no winking at the camera, because that’s not what this is. On the other, Davis’s voice work as M3GAN is as clear, dour, and purposefully dry as can be, but she knows that even the most threatening lines that the character spits out as she prepares to wreak havoc can play for laughs.
There’s not all that much going on beyond this. M3GAN is a sharp and thoroughly absurd movie with a decidedly vicious streak. It tips its cap toward individual readings – it is, after all, a story about artificial intelligence and society, as well as one about children and technology, as well as one about the deadly consequences of corporate greed – but it’s not inclined to launch itself fully into any particular direction. Mostly, it’s here for the chaos, which is generally welcome, but can also cut against it: the movie has built itself up so much that the unveiling of the finale can’t help but feel a touch obvious, and it feels like the devices of the plot start driving the story, instead of the eccentric supervillain we’re here for. Because M3GAN is so precise and upfront, this is a very delicately constructed character, much more so than you might think, and it’s actually easy for what makes this idea work to get lost. Better, then, for Johnstone and company to luxuriate in the pure silliness of it all. Let M3GAN be M3GAN: effortlessly funny, unstoppably violent, and – the binding value of these two factors – entirely undefeatable. A hook in the final shot sets up the sequel, as it must. But it feels even more extraneous than it otherwise would in any other horror movie. No character ever suggests they’ll really defeat her or what she represents.
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