Movie Review: M3GAN

Recently, M3GAN was available on the streaming platform Peacock for free, so I watched it. Two words immediately come to my mind that sum up this fun, intriguing movie: wonderfully warped. For those, such as myself, who like the horror sub-genre of creepy doll movies and TV/streaming shows, when done well, this one has an added, updated twist. M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android) is not possessed by an evil spirit or somehow controlled by a person harboring sinister motives, but, rather, is an AI robot toy.

The possible perils of AI and over-reliance on high-tech are powerfully explored in M3GAN. Directed by Gerard Johnstone and written by Akela Cooper, from a story by her and James Wan, this dark comedy science fiction horror is fascinating, suspenseful, campy, and thrilling from start to finish. The soundtrack comprises a lot of interesting music and songs (such as “Titanium” and “Toy Soldiers,” both by Anthony Willis, to name just a few), all quite fresh and stimulating to listen to.

Allison Williams plays Gemma, a young thirty-something robotics scientist who, along with two assisting coworkers, begin to create M3GAN (played by Amie Donald with Jenna Davis voicing the character). She finds herself the appointed guardian of her nine-year-old niece Cady (Violet McGraw), whose parents have just died in an automobile accident. Having temporarily shelved the M3GAN project due to technical glitches and other work pressures at Funki, a high-tech toy company in Seattle, WA, Gemma fast tracks completing it as a way to offer companionship to Cady and child-rearing help for her. The single, career-focused Gemma has never been a parent. To the dismay of Lydia (Amy Usherwood), a court-appointed child therapist, the traumatized, grief-stricken Cady develops a strong bond with M3GAN, who plays with, comforts, protects, and even prompts the girl to complete basic tasks. At one point, Lydia briefly but clearly explains to Gemma how healthy emotional attachment for a child develops. She expresses concern about Cady having an unhealthy emotional attachment to M3GAN, this seemingly replacing a primary, child-to-caregiver bond with Gemma.

Assigned by Gemma to emotionally and physically protect Cady, M3GAN does so with increasing fervor, developing what seems like self-awareness along the way. She readily assimilates data from online and her surroundings, though M3GAN has not been given adequate and clear “parameters” and “protocols” by her inventor to understand and discuss, let alone act upon, ethically challenging topics, such as death, with Cady. Jarringly, in an upbeat girl’s voice, the child robot delivers detailed scientific, household facts and, later, opinions, such as when sitting across from Cady and Gemma, growing intrusive between the two as the movie unfolds. These moments of the three main characters at the dining room table are a tableau of modern tension in so many homes of today: the living, vital connection between human beings on one hand with the nearby intrusion of heavily relied-upon technology on the other. Gemma’s turning off M3GAN, which becomes more challenging to do over time, is like any of us deliberately switching off our smart phones and/or computers, “going offline” for a while, though often with concerted effort. Like M3GAN, communication devices may seem to talk to their owners (and some, like Alexa and ChatGPT, actually do) via simply their forefront importance embedded in daily life, diverting us away from holding our living, breathing loved ones in our minds, hearts, and arms as consistently as we could and should.

M3GAN’s physicality is a fascinating mix of interesting, amusing, creepy, and frightening. Made of plastic and titanium to “withstand” hard use, she seems otherworldly and is nearly indestructible. The actual doll for the production was a mix of animatronic puppet for closeups and dialogue scenes and real person (Amie Donald) for full-bodied motion and action sequences. Digital effects by Weta Workshop enhanced her movements. In some places, M3GAN’s face was CGI. The doll’s large, pristine irises shine like strange jewels, eyelids blinking quickly with a faint clicking-whirring sound, even these small movements mechanical and calculated. Calculated. M3GAN is that with everything she says and does, fine tuning her calculations with more data that she gathers. She sits in a corner of Cady’s bedroom each night, guarding her companion and charge, ready to switch on if needed after powering down. From beneath, she is eerily lit up whenever she shifts in her seat by what I gathered is her charging station, like keeping a computer or phone plugged in overnight. Recollecting these and other scenes still sends small chills down my back.

M3GAN moves gracefully and dangerously on her two feet, dancing in both a calculated yet child-like carefree way as she works herself into another frenzy of aggression. Actress Amie Donald was diligently trained in executing her varied movements, including stunts, the results impressive and frightening. Add to this the clean voice of Jenna Davis, the doll sings on more than one occasion, sounding deceptively innocent yet ominous, a poised tone of self-serving intent, her accompanying attire, face and overall demeanor subtly smug. The singing actually reaches a point of absurdity in the face of extreme circumstances, which had me both laughing and feeling tense with suspense. Often, the most scary stuff in life is human or human-made. Same goes for the absurd. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie pull off balancing scary and absurd so well like this one does.

M3GAN gradually grows sinister in demeanor, erupting forth in a scene within a forest where she runs on all fours, in pursuit like a a predator. A friend of mine remarked on how effectively creepy and, perhaps even, prescient this portrayal is, conveying the idea that she might represent the next level of human evolution. I had not thought of my friend Susy Fleisher’s observation and speculation here, but the implications are intriguing and thought-provoking, given how so much predatory, base behavior– a possible devolution– among humans is occurring, juxtaposed with all the persistent efforts of some people’s admirable, noteworthy actions towards healthy progress. Will humanity end up going backwards more than not, equivalent to stooping down on all fours? Would that change in physical stance actually be “backwards” and all bad? The curious mind wonders, explores. If nothing else, M3GAN is a sober reminder of how, like actual humans, AI too can have predatory animal intelligence because this is so built into nature, which AI imitates, since it can be programmed to do so. This would be done by some creators of AI, for instance, in hopes of adding a more human “feel” and/or to bolster the AI’s effectiveness as weapons of war or well-honed private security tools. But, like M3GAN, can more sophisticated AI turn on its makers and/or those it is meant to help? Is high-tech, AI or otherwise, already turning on us simply by our increased dependency on it and the subsequent intrusions into our real life relationships that seem to have occurred like someone steadily accruing thousands of paper cuts or frogs sitting in slowly heating water, blissfully unaware of heading towards the boiling point? The film M3GAN is a warning. At least one of its two producers, James Wan, has said as much: “Pretty much the concept is about embracing technology too much and relying too much on it. And what happens when technology runs amok. It’s a commentary on the world we live in and it feels relevant.” (Quote taken from WIKIPEDIA.)

Such a carefully, humorously crafted movie as M3GAN, with its over-the-top moments, economically and well-placed special effects, and weirdly glamorous, alien-like title character all amount to what I consider high camp. This film is a rare, unique mix, resulting in an alchemy that works. For those who like this sub-genre of horror, new, creative ideas and images are presented within an often predictable plot line. Many movies and books that break new ground balance this with familiar, well traversed terrain. M3GAN is such a movie, one that will likely (if it hasn’t already) draw in some viewers who normally would not care to watch creepy doll horror. The social commentary and ethical dilemmas concerning technology presented in this screenplay elevate it to something more than just its sub-genre. For better and for worse, it may well inspire a whole new sub-sub-genre of movies to be made, concerning AI robots.

There are two current versions of this movie, the initial theatrical release and the more blood and f-bomb filled director’s cut, both of which appear to be the same length in running time. They are each available for streaming on Peacock. The “cleaned up” version had scenes re-shot and many swears deleted in order for it to obtain a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association, so a wider audience could be reached. That seems to have paid off, since the movie cost a total of twelve million dollars to make and cleared almost fifteen times that amount in the box office.

I sense I will always remember M3GAN like other unforgettable iconic screen images, such as the large make-shift face of the Wizard in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ or the Wicked Witch of the West in that same classic film.

M3GAN, embodying high-tech gone dangerously awry, is an entertaining, often laughable, yet foreboding study in us humans being at risk of steadily losing connection with each other and the natural world and how chaotic and destructive that will increasingly look and feel if left unchecked.

Hear Hear/Here Here to Naked Statues Imagery

I sympathize with the sentiment behind all the postings on Facebook and Instagram of naked Greek, Roman, and Italian statues with penises imagery, including those purposefully photoshopped in support of drag queens and intersex people. (Ancient hermaphroditic statues actually exist and those are great to see posted on those two platforms as well.) Such surges in suppression of art and gender expression are age-old and tiresome.

(Photo of a statue of Priapus, found in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii.)

Yes to Creepy Doll Horror Movies, No to Chucky of CHILD’S PLAY

While I very much enjoy well-crafted creepy doll horror movies (and I’m in the midst of writing a full review of the well-done movie M3GAN), I do not care for Chucky of the CHILD’S PLAY franchise. I watched an early film in that series (probably the first one, from 1988) and found Chucky to be crass and obnoxious. From what I’ve heard and read, that character becomes quite disgusting in subsequent films. I watch this horror sub-genre for the psychological suspense, intrigue, eeriness, camp, and even the strange beauty that some dolls possess. I do not see such movies to be grossed out by crude and disgusting demeanor and behavior, such as what’s displayed by the main villain throughout the CHILD’S PLAY productions. (And now I see there’s a TV/streaming series called CHUCKY. Ugh.) No thank you, Chucky; you’re not for me.

Micro/Mini Movie Review: KRAMPUS (2015)

I watched the dark comedy and horror movie KRAMPUS (2015) last night. What fun, particularly the portrayals of and interactions among members of a dysfunctional American family. There is a beautifully done animation sequence for a flashback of childhood memories by the Christmastime hosting family’s German grandmother. The movie is not at all gory. Krampus himself looked quite menacing yet fascinating.

Even Christmas has its dark side.

My Own Attempts at Art: A Fiery Image with a Self Affirmation (felt tip pens on paper)

I drew this fiery image and wrote out the self affirming statement back in 1989, possibly 1990. I vaguely remember the psychotherapist I was working with at the time suggesting I draw something as an exercise in creativity and affirmation. This was the result. These days, I actually do visualize my inner power more, which is my higher Self, connected with the great light source of the universe.


(Spoiler alert: I did my best here to not give anything away, but I eventually make vague references to a few significant story developments I found hard to avoid mentioning in order to still provide a coherent, thought-out review of this movie.)

After a four month wait for BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER to become available to rent on a streaming platform (Disney), I watched it yesterday (Saturday) morning and was pleasantly impressed. First of all, this sequel to 2018’s BLACK PANTHER served as a means for me to properly grieve the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who died in late August of 2020 from colon cancer. This movie opens with his character, King T’Challa, the Black Panther, dying off screen from some unspecified illness from which his scientist sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is unable to save him. Shortly after this, Shuri stands by her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who leads the fictional African nation of Wakanda in a beautiful burial and memorial ceremony of their beloved monarch. I wept, partly over the loss of this elegantly regal, dignified character but mostly over the death of such a fine and beautiful actor. I imagine other viewers had a similar cathartic experience. Sometimes, a movie character and the actor playing them uncannily seem to harmoniously intertwine on screen and in real life. T’Challa/Boseman is one such example I will always remember with warmth and a deep respect.

Queen Ramonda is soon beset with challenges, initially concerning the protection of her country’s vibranium from other nations and parties wanting to obtain it for power and profit. However, another problem arises: the threat from Talokan, a mysterious underwater kingdom originating from the ancient Mayan civilization. The Talokanil also have plentiful access to vibranium. Their sovereign state is led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia, full name Jose Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a half human, half ocean deity and anti-hero. Viewing Wakanda as responsible for publicizing to the world the existence of precious virbranium, Namor seeks out Queen Ramonda through a clandestine night-time visit to her homeland. During this unwelcome encounter, he demands her kingdom’s cooperation in delivering to him a young female scientist at MIT, who has invented and built a machine that detects vibranium. The already action-filled narrative picks up pace from there.

I was thrilled to see Angela Bassett in her role as Ramonda carrying the mantel of monarch and enjoying a more central role in this sequel. I so wanted to see more of her in BLACK PANTHER, and this follow-up delivered. Like the late Mr. Boseman’s, her screen presence is poised, regal, and elegant, harkening back to beautiful, larger than life movie stars of decades past. With a natural charisma, she wears her character’s grand and exquisite dresses and hats, adding much to the already lush-filled imagery throughout this fun work of cinema. Ms. Bassett spends all of her scenes gracefully portraying a leader with deep intelligence, strength, and compassion. Her 2022 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well-deserved here.

The rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent, with Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira standing out alongside Bassett (well, almost alongside her). I was glad to see the old Marvel character Namor portrayed here as a Mayan instead of a black-haired white male like he originally was shown in the comics, starting in 1939. His grievances stem from his ancestors’ oppression at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, adding nuance and complexity to him. Handsome Mexican actor Huerta Mejia’s screen presence is sincere and passionate. Ms. Nyong’o as Nakia, the Wakandan spy and former love interest of King T’Challa, shows up a ways into the movie but, when she does, her familiar, serious persona quickly drew me in, as if I’d just seen her on screen the other day, not almost five years ago. She is a woman with gravitas and a sense of purpose in her face and movements. The same can be said of Gurira’s Okoye, General of the Dora, an elite group of Wakandan women warriors. These powerful women are forces to be reckoned with, matched well in strength and charisma by Namor.

Letitia Wright and Dominique Thorne are the two somewhat weak links in the cast. They are good, not quite excellent. I may be seeming unfair here, but hear me out for a moment. In her role as Princess Shura, younger sister of King T’Challa, Wright is lovely and fun as the geeky, super competent scientist in BLACK PANTHER. She is this again in WAKANDA FOREVER, only her role eventually has additional shoes to fill, a transition which I found hard for her to believably complete. Even though the actress is in her late twenties, Wright is rather girlish in her voice, emotional energy, and physicality, hence not quite grounded in fully mature adulthood and the deeper relaying of confidence that goes with that, particularly for someone in a position of power and authority. Perhaps, however, Ms. Wright will mature more in the next installment of this series. I will say, though, that she acts as a believable older sister type of friend to Thorne’s Riri Williams, a young genius MIT student. Their combined moments on screen are sweet and endearing. I did find myself having to effort a little bit around suspending my disbelief over Thorne’s portrayal of someone so scientifically brilliant. I imagined her spending most of her time and energy doing daredevil things like racing cars, a hobby of Riri’s in the movie, rather than frequently studying advanced mathematics and science and inventing high tech. machinery. This could just be me, however, given that I’ve hardly ever spent any time with young geniuses, it having been decades since I last did so in college. The few I met and can most readily recall were subdued and noticeably book smart. In any case, Ms. Thorne, who is now twenty-five, is believably youthful as nineteen-year-old Riri, amazed in the face of so much wonder around her. She is probably a significant, relatable vehicle for much of the youth watching this movie, so there is that, while I’m a middle aged man more readily relating to the characters who are over thirty. To other viewers, perhaps Thorne’s Riri is excellent too.

Like BLACK PANTHER, WAKANDA FOREVER is a sweeping screen epic. All the lovely, cleanly done CGI of the colorful Talokanil is a beautiful addition to the mix of familiar Wakandan images. The focus on women as leaders and heroines in this sequel is a natural transition and evolution from the first movie. A proper honoring of King T’Challa’s memory and the male line of rulers before him is presented in a balanced, graceful way. And it is noteworthy that the large majority of the cast in this high budget blockbuster is Black and Latino. Far more high and lower budget productions with such casting of great, non-white talent need to be made, of course. This is so long, long overdue.

I’m skeptical of the power that will come through in the third installment of the BLACK PANTHER franchise. It is slated to be made, per the statement at the end of the movie’s credits that this entity will return. With King T’Challa (and Boseman himself) dead and buried and how BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER concludes, I can’t help but wonder how certain vacuums of presence that arose will be effectively, substantively filled. Will Letitia Wright be able to carry the third production? How much will Nyong’o and Gurira be able to help her along? It seems likely that these first two completed films will be very hard acts to follow, as is so often the case with sequels, especially second ones and beyond. Well, I guess we shall see.

Flexing and Mixing Treatment Models

In my work as a psychotherapist, I find myself mindfully, organically mixing Internal Family Systems (IFS), EMDR, and Brainspotting (BSP) with clients. This is parallel to how artists learn certain styles and techniques to then eventually intuitively draw from any and all of them, thereby creating something uniquely their own. This flexing and mixing of treatment models results in my more effectively meeting clients where they are at.