From the very first trailer, I had a feeling that Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN was going to totally be my jam, and I’m happy to report that my instincts were correct. A darkly humorous take on the dangers of allowing technology to take over our interpersonal connections that also thoughtfully examines the difficulties many parents face these days while trying to raise their kids in such a tech-forward society, M3GAN delivers up a wickedly fun viewing experience and a new horror icon to boot.
In M3GAN, young Cady (Violet McGraw) loses her parents after a tragic accident, leaving her in the care of her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is a career-focused toy developer who is far more comfortable in her lab than she is interacting in meaningful relationships with others, which makes her an imperfect choice for playing caregiver to her niece. Gemma does her best to step up and support Cady through this tough time, and she determines that what her niece needs most in the world is a dependable friend that she can relate to and who will be with her always.
Enter M3GAN. M3GAN is a marvel of modern-day technology—a doll so advanced that she is programmed to cater to her assigned child’s (in this case, Cady being the tot in question) every possible need, as she not only serves as their best pal, playmate, and confidante, but acts as their protector as well. For Cady, who struggles with creating meaningful relationships in the wake of the death of her parents, the arrival of M3GAN is the first bright spot in her life in quite some time. And for Gemma, who is still awkwardly working out her own approach to being a parental figure to her niece, she sees her creation’s capabilities as a godsend while she tries to find some balance in both her personal and professional life.
At first, things are working out well enough, as M3GAN not only endears herself to her new family but also wins over Gemma’s boss (Ronny Chieng), who sees the doll as the future of the toy industry. But considering this is a horror movie, things can only remain good for so long, so when M3GAN’s cutting-edge technology begins to evolve far past Gemma’s expectations, that’s when all hell breaks loose. The titular character’s devotion towards Cady evolves into something extremely sinister, and it’s up to Gemma to find a way to stop M3GAN before it’s too late for everyone who happens to cross paths with her highly evolved creation.
Beyond the great performances and the jaw-dropping use of practical effects as well as a few other magical tricks to bring the film’s titular character to life, one of M3GAN’s greatest assets is its script from Akela Cooper, who brings her own unique sensibilities to the table here to craft a story that is both darkly comedic but wholly heartfelt in equal measure. It takes a special kind of screenwriting talent to incorporate outrageous concepts like Cooper has done both with Malignant and now with M3GAN, all while grounding them in a world that feels wholly relatable and accessible all the same, but Cooper really succeeds at getting viewers to buy into these worlds before throwing all kinds of offbeat shenanigans our way once things go completely bananas (I’m also a big fan of her more straight-forward work on Hell Fest, too).
But in terms of the aforementioned bananas, that’s where Johnstone—another key asset for why M3GAN works as well as it does—comes into play. I’ve been a huge fan of the New Zealand filmmaker ever since discovering Housebound back in 2014, and M3GAN is the perfect vehicle to showcase his keen ability of being able to seamlessly blend together tones in a way that feels effortless but also keeps you on your toes because you just never quite know what exactly he’s going to throw at you along the way. I cannot believe it’s been eight years since we’ve had a feature film from Johnstone, but I’m hoping M3GAN demonstrates to the world just why we need more movies from Gerard because he’s really great at what he does as a visual storyteller.
Considering its PG-13 rating, it’s safe to say that M3GAN is a film intended for younger audiences (which I’m always in favor of—horror is for fans of all ages), but I also think there’s plenty for the more hardened genre aficionados out there to enjoy as well. But even though M3GAN does feel like it downplays some of the violence that its titular character inflicts on her victims, I never really felt like I was missing any of that stuff either, so this is one of the cases where less is more in horror. Would I have enjoyed seeing a more blood-soaked version of M3GAN? I mean, sure. But do I think it would have necessarily added anything to my viewing experience as a whole? Not particularly.
I still had a ton of fun with M3GAN and it was all due to the film’s central character and her wildly chaotic (yet empowering) energy in general. Both Williams and McGraw are quite enjoyable here as well, and I loved how I was filled with a sense of wonder once the character of M3GAN was introduced (there’s a fun Frankenstein-inspired sequence that made me giddy), as there’s something quite miraculous about how the doll was brought to life for the big screen here. As someone who feels fortunate to have grown up during the heyday of practical effects, the way that Johnstone and his crew were able to rely on practical effects work for a majority of M3GAN is wholly impressive, especially since having an actualized doll adds so much to the film’s success overall (akin to Chucky throughout the Child’s Play series).
Movie Score: 4/5