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.

Movie Review: LOOKER (from 1981)

The talented, late actor Albert Finney starred in two films released in 1981, neither of which performed well at the box office at the time. His urban horror film WOLFEN (released in July of ’81) was powerful and well-done, however. It explored the tension between nature and the encroachment of humans and their technology via an often haunting, atmospheric screenplay about highly intelligent wolves killing people in parts of NYC. There was even a Native American shamanic thread within the narrative, adding further depth. I watched that movie with rapt attention in the theater and then again on video about a year later. I can see why Mr. Finney chose to perform in such an interesting, thought-provoking project.

LOOKER, released in October of 1981, is also an urban-oriented suspense thriller, though far more superficial than that year’s WOLFEN. As a teenager, I remember feeling curious to see the film when it was new in the local movie theater, but, somehow, I didn’t manage to get around to doing so until very recently, over forty years later.

Albert Finney stars as Dr. Larry Roberts, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. Susan Dey costars as Cindy Fairmont, a professional television and print model and one of his recent patients. Three models, all patients of Dr. Roberts,’ are mysteriously killed in close succession, two of them on screen. Larry and Cindy become caught up in the police investigation of these murders, which point to Digital Matrix, a research firm that’s directly a part of a large corporation headed up by John Reston (James Coburn).

LOOKER is a fairly weak screenplay, which, I read, would likely have been more coherent and logical if it were not so edited down to just ninety-four minutes. It presents some science fiction technology that borders on the absurd, namely a certain light pulse (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses or L.O.O.K.E.R.) gun. This weapon temporarily blinds a person with carefully pulsed light, hypnotizing the victim to lose sense of time for several moments and render their assailant briefly invisible to them. Some similar technology is used on television commercials, whereby the audience is hypnotized into buying the endorsed products. The presentation of this and the CGI of human models is visually interesting and intriguing, especially for how long ago this movie was made. The actual CGI in LOOKER is minimal (on CRT screens within the movie), whereas real people (including Dey’s character Cindy) play what are supposed to be CGI creations within TV commercials. We viewers are never explicitly told why three models are killed and a fourth one, Cindy (Dey), is in grave danger. But, we eventually surmise that Digital Matrix simply does not wish to continue to pay a salary to live models once it creates CGI duplicates of them to use on TV at no further cost and only for profit.

The core premise of this what now seems like a fun cult movie from the early ’80s is that TV is a means of hypnotic control of the masses by predatory corporations and humans are disposable, even replaceable with computer technology. In a way, this campy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek production is hauntingly prescient. It presents AI made imagery, now taking off hugely on social media over the past few years, without actually calling it that. The development of “deep fake” online videos of people and the current debate about concerns over AI stealing from and, eventually, replacing the work of graphic and other visual artists are indicators that we have pretty much arrived in the strange world LOOKER was foreseeing.

LOOKER is visually slick and entertaining in places with its display of beautiful women models wearing tasteful clothes and bathing suits. And I always find Los Angeles city and beach scenery make for pleasant viewing. Finney’s and Coburn’s presences lend some ruggedly masculine gravitas to this amusingly bizarre, if often flimsy, film. Nevertheless, what manages to come through somewhat are the grave implications of technology driven by hyper-capitalism. If left un-checked, this economic model can and will further steal lives and souls from humanity. I do wonder if some footage left on the cutting room floor rendered this movie more vapid than what it may well not have been had the final print been, say, about half an hour longer. According to Mr. Coburn himself, “They really pissed that film away,” because of over-editing. It seems like an opportunity was missed in producing a more substantive, memorable project.  

Movie Review: THIS ISLAND EARTH (from 1955)

While recently ill with Covid-19, I finally watched the 1955 science fiction movie classic THIS ISLAND EARTH, starring the interestingly beautiful, unusually sloe-eyed Faith Domergue. Probably almost thirty years ago, I had seen some parts of it, but not the entire film, until just the other day. For those, like myself, who enjoy the small amount of well-made, extant 1950s movies in the sci-fi genre, THIS ISLAND EARTH is impressive. Its then state-of-the-art special effects and, towards the end of the movie’s well-paced eighty-six minutes, beautiful animation, matte background set, and artistic large-brained, insectoid alien costume all render this production aesthetically on par with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). The acting quality is sufficient, conventionally emphatic (verging on over-acting in places) for the time, so not particularly remarkable. I generally do not watch this category of movies for their cast’s acting abilities.

The plot is straightforward and intriguing. A pair of male humanoid aliens from the far away planet Metaluna have come to earth to recruit a select group of top notch nuclear scientists from around the world. We viewers eventually find out that this advanced civilization is at war with a neighboring one and desperately needs help from intelligent earthlings to save their dying world. Enter the tall, baritone-voiced Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason). Upon his arrival at a secret Metalunan research site, he meets up with a colleague and romantic interest from his recent past, Dr. Ruth Adams (Domergue). They are not long at this facility before getting whisked off by a flying saucer bound for Metaluna. The journey there and back is a mix of the scientifically credible and inaccurate, but visually colorful and entertaining nonetheless. Jeff Morrow plays Exeter, a sympathetic alien scientist who leads this plan to involve human beings in saving his planet of origin.

In addition to the aforementioned impressive technical aspects of this movie, what I also found noteworthy is how the leading female character, Dr. Adams, is portrayed. She is single and a highly respected scientist, along with at least one other female scientist within a small, elite group. There are eventually a few requisite moments of her being put in danger and screaming. Hence, due to this movie and others she starred in, Ms. Domergue became known as a “scream queen,” like many other actresses of her time, before, and later. However, her overall competence in the role of independent, unmarried professional scientist in both this film and the far inferior, yet also entertaining, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (also released in 1955), come through as primary, intact identities. The fact that Faith Domergue played this type of central, on-screen persona twice in one year impresses me. Her portrayal of Professor Lesley Joyce is actually more active and crucial in IT CAME… than in THIS ISLAND EARTH. But, in both productions, her identity remains that of a single professional at the end, albeit more explicitly so in IT CAME…. I found this pleasantly surprising and encouraging, given how so many movies from this era tended to relegate women into playing less competent and empowered roles. I am glad for Ms. Domergue and the exposure of audiences to these two characters of hers back in the 1950s.

What I did find irritating yet not at all surprising is how the leading men in both of these screenplays are presented. They are positioned as the necessary physical strength and stoic presence to both protect and “complete” Ms. Domergue’s “weaker” feminine vulnerability. Ridiculous. A well-educated, competent, single woman can draw from her own inner strength to get through life as a complete feeling person. Indeed, these two movies are conventional products of their times, albeit with some semi-feminist overtures.

Ultimately, THIS ISLAND EARTH is a visually entertaining movie that lightly explores a deep ethical dilemma: the ongoing cost of war on civilizations. Other than these positives, the script adheres to the ancient assumption that women– even intelligent, resourceful ones– are the “weaker” sex. Additionally, the movie is a product of the early years of the nuclear age, when splitting the atom was marketed as healthy for society, a major solution to many of humankind’s problems. Admittedly, the film is quite dated. But, the lovely Faith Domergue and all the colorful spectacle, such as (to name just a few images) many explosions and a giant flying saucer that produces a glowing green tractor beam, make it a joy to watch.