Director: Gerard Johnstone
Stars: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Jenna Davis
Four ft high and rising, M3GAN is the January wildcard we’ve been waiting for; a viral phenomenon thanks to a savvy marketing campaign that’s already generated out-of-season box office returns and bagged a sequel at the very least. She may even have gotten Jim Cameron glancing over his shoulder (a pleasing irony given the Terminator-lite vibes on offer here). You’ve probably been exposed to either the TV spots, the bus billboards or – more likely – the videos of the M3GAN dance troupe sashaying their way among the unsuspecting NYC populous on social media. But with all this effort put into generating anticipation, what to make of the movie itself? ‘M3GAN’ and ‘Chucky’ may have playfully exchanged mutually-beneficial beef on Twitter, but isn’t this just another Child’s Play clone?
Kiwi director Gerard Johnstone may be a relatively unknown commodity (enjoyed his debut Housebound some years back), but the real creative fire here comes from Akela Cooper who, along with James Wan and his partner Ingrid Bisu, delivered gleeful abandon throughout 2021’s Malignant. That films offbeat tone and third act pyrotechnics whetted the appetite for this smaller-scale offering, one that makes up for it’s familiarity with moments of unbridled, audience-baiting sass.
Opening with a RoboCop-esque bit of commercial satire, we’re in the near future and 9-year-old Cady Ryan (Violet McGraw) sits in the backseat of her parents’ car fussing over her babbling robo-pet as they drive up a mountain in a snowstorm. An accident leaves her suddenly orphaned and passed into the care of her career-driven aunt Gemma (Allison Williams); a roboticist and toymaker in the corporate machine who opens her home but not her heart to the child that’s been thrusted into her care. Taking to the ‘problem’ as an opportunity to further her proposal for a lifelike doll, Gemma creates a prototype robot, M3GAN (Mark 3 Generative Android), an uncanny-valley amalgamation of puppetry, auto-tune and stunt doubling from child dancer Amie Donald.
M3GAN’s presence immediately opens up an already active mode of investigation. Are we deliberately distancing ourselves from hands-on parenting through gadgets and gizmos? As technology races around us, have we become too selfish and, in the process, have we encouraged unhealthy relationships with the devices that serve us? M3GAN certainly seems to think so and, watching the movie in a sell-out multiplex where grown adults can’t keep their hands off their cellphones, it’s hard to disagree.
Persistently playing the role of both a parent and a friend causes tension in the household, as M3GAN challenges any boundaries that Gemma attempts to maintain. Siding with the 9-year-old in increasingly protective and malevolent ways, Gemma’s creation evolves beyond her control. It’s a surprisingly gradual process. Cooper and Johnstone take their time, but there’s plenty of scene-stealing strangeness to placate short attention spans. Among these, for this viewer, was unequivocally an inspired and eerie choice of bedtime lullaby (“fire away, fire away…”).
One of the greatest boons the film has during its casual amp-up is the clutch of central performances. Williams nails the complexities of an emotionally reserved, career-minded woman suddenly required to operate in an entirely different mode. Gemma can be cold, but we’re never not with her, even when her actions are misguided. For a child actor, McGraw more than holds her own, and has a lot of difficult emotional beats asked of her. She hits them all. And though unseen, Jenna Davis’ augmented voicework as M3GAN adds a lot to the whole, particularly when liberally dolling out those deadpan clap-backs.
While you have Cady’s grief as a through-line, Gemma is just as important to this equation. If she is the post-modern Prometheus and M3GAN is her Frankenstein’s monster, what occurs here will resonate for anyone who finds the prospect of having a child, frankly, terrifying. Gemma’s anxieties about the responsibility of fostering Cady are writ large in her inability to control this robot, a nightmare born of her own hands. The roots of Gemma’s reticence with children are kept cagily off the books, but her chosen profession speaks of a warped urge to reconcile this schism somehow.
As you can see, it’s quite possible to overthink M3GAN. Such avenues of afterthought are there, but most keenly she’s a bit of a basic bitch. This is ideal gateway material for a new generation looking to find a footing with horror, and the robotic menace herself seems destined to join the ranks of iconic genre villains immediately. She isn’t Chucky (I could go into a whole bit here itemising the differences), but she may have the same potential mileage. And considering Don Mancini’s doll is up to seven movies, a remake and two seasons of television, that’s not to be sniffed at.
Studio cutting means that this is a relatively gore-free Friday night excursion to the flicks (though rumour has it a more explicit cut may be coming our way…). But even with the violence toned down, there’s plenty of daft and macabre fun to be had in the movie’s straightforward approach. Johnstone doesn’t showboat especially, keeping frames and blocking clean so that his onscreen talent can do their work. The set-pieces hit and the occasional cheap jumps are forgivable thanks to the goodwill elsewhere. If the whole lacks the gonzo ambition of Malignant, it provides a sturdy foundation for a franchise to build upon, while never forgetting its present purpose; to entertain.
Now put your phone down and go read to that kid you created.