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.