‘M3GAN’ Review: Creepy, Preposterous and Diverting

The title character of “M3GAN,” a slyly preposterous and also somewhat clever satirical sci-fi horror film, is a beautiful creepy android doll from hell who doesn’t look like other sinister movie playthings. Her placid soft features — the oversize light gray eyes, the smooth alabaster skin, the mouth that grins, pouts, and signals approval or displeasure — have been enhanced with a heavy layer of digital effects, but there’s a real actor under there named Amie Donald, and that helps to place this humanoid in her own uncanny valley. You might say that M3GAN, as a character, achieves the apotheosis of dollhood. She seems completely fake and completely real at the same time.

Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics engineer, works for the Funki Toy company, where she spends her time designing gizmos like PurrpetualPetz, a programmed fuzzball that eats, poops, and makes snarky comments. But Gemma has bigger dreams. She has hijacked $100,000 of the company’s money to create the prototype for M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android), building her out of a metallic skeleton, silicon skin, lasers, radar, and a highly developed artificial intelligence that allows her to speak like the world’s wittiest Siri companion. (Her voice, a sugary and knowingly innocent girl-next-door coo, is provided by Jenna Davis.)

If “M3GAN” had a whisper of subtlety, it would tease the issue of whether M3GAN had a mind of her own. But the movie shows you from the outset that she most assuredly does. With her awesome encyclopedic knowledge of everything, combined with her ability to respond to you like a surrogate parent, a soulful bestie, a self-actualizing therapist, a conspiratorial mean girl, or a musical songbird who, if you’re down, will serenade you with a soft-rock rendition of “Titanium,” M3GAN is like HAL 9000 meets a lost Olsen sister meets Chucky. When the action starts to heat up, she’s invested with a quality of invisible ominousness, like one of those Diane Arbus twins from “The Shining” crossed with the Terminator. If things don’t go her way, she will get very angry, but she’ll do it with a dash of attitude, as when she tells the bully who’s pestering Cady, “This is the part where you run.”  

“M3GAN,” as you may have gathered, is overly steeped in pop-culture role models, but in its trivial way it’s a diverting genre film, one that possesses a healthy sense of its own absurdity. Movies released during the first week of January tend to share a quality of utter disposability, but “M3GAN” almost feels like it could be a cult film, the sort of thriller that generates a small but devoted following and maybe a sequel or two. You don’t have to take the movie seriously to enjoy it as a high-kitsch cautionary tale for an age when technology, especially for kids, is becoming the new companionship.

Williams, who is one of the film’s executive producers (its two high-powered producer-auteurs are James Wan and Jason Blum), invests Gemma with a winningly jaunty, at times clueless hyperrationality that makes her both the film’s heroine and its rather innocent digital-age Dr. Frankenstein. Gemma, an obsessive prodigy of robotics, had been ordered by her boss to abandon the M3GAN project. But the film opens with a (contrived) cataclysm that nudges her into secretly going ahead with it. Her young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), is on a ski trip with her parents when, in a freak accident, their car gets run over by a snowplow.

Gemma takes custody of the newly orphaned girl, and while she seems utterly adrift about what someone Cady’s age might need (like, say, a bedtime story), her failure as a caretaker is part of the film’s satirical design. “M3GAN” takes place in a world — namely, ours — where parents, bemoaning how much screen time they allow their children, give into the impulse anyway, because it feels both easy and inevitable. The film says that we’re already letting computer technology raise our kids. M3GAN the willowy programmed companion who always says the perfect thing becomes the logical culmination of that trend.

Once Cady imprints her fingers in M3GAN’s palm, which automatically programs the doll to become her special companion, their relationship makes everything else seem boring, at least to Cady. The film parallels their insular friendship with Gemma’s attempt to turn M3GAN into a hot new product. She places Cady and M3GAN in a playroom behind one-way glass, using them to demonstrate the toy’s amazing abilities to her boss (played, with a riveting short fuse, by Ronny Chieng). He is sold, and begins to plan the marketing rollout of this revolutionary new toy, which will be put on sale at $10,000 a pop.

But the more they plan, the more that M3GAN, on her own, is causing mischief, starting with the confrontation she initiates with Gemma’s cranky next-door neighbor (Lori Dungey) and her dog. M3GAN has been programmed to have “emergent capabilities,” which means that the more she interacts with people the more she learns how to do. That certainly applies to her fighting style, a kind of stiff-limbed rapid zombie dance that leaves nothing in its wake. At a certain point, you realize that “M3GAN” has become a movie about a killer doll who knows how to use a nail gun.

Even so, there are insidious flashes of wit to the way that M3GAN speaks. She has a bon mot for every occasion; even when she’s mad, she has mastered the art of corporate euphemism. “M3GAN” fits into a tradition of demon-doll movies going back to the Karen Black episode of “Trilogy of Terror” (1975) and the “Annabelle” trilogy (also produced by Wan), but it has its own amusing throwaway token relevance. The film’s real satirical target is all of us — or, at least, those who now think of the mirror offered by artificial intelligence as an actual form of interaction.

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