M3GAN, the latest hit from superstar producers Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Get Out) and James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), did not seem destined to be a cultural moment. When the trailer dropped last year, online critics quickly dismissed it as another entry in the bloated killer-doll subgenre, a web 2.0 reskin of Chucky, Talky Tina, and Wan’s own Annabelle. Nonetheless, the film’s sardonic wit and TikTok-oriented dance sequence have made it a box-office smash, with a sequel already on the way.
Gemma (Alison Williams) is an ambitious robotics engineer consigned to building high-tech Furby knock-offs that demand microtransactions and produce fake poop. Evading her employer’s watchful eye, Gemma has secretly developed a more sophisticated toy called M3GAN, a machine-learning android capable of informed conversation and complex motor skills. M3GAN also has the lifeless eyes of a great white shark.
When her sister dies, Gemma becomes the sole guardian of niece Cady (Violet McGraw), a responsibility she struggles to accommodate with her chic workaholic lifestyle. Then, in a predictable two-birds-one-stone moment, the perfect solution presents itself: by pairing Cady with M3GAN, Gemma can occupy the child while developing M3GAN’s capabilities. If you’ve thought about artificial intelligence for a second, you can anticipate how this will go awry.
Despite the trailer’s sinister beat, M3GAN is more comedy than horror, Shaun of the Dead rather than 28 Days Later. Kiwi director Gerard Johnstone hit a similar tone in his debut film Housebound, revitalising haunted house tropes with nimble comedy and a unique morsel of gore involving a clothes horse.
With M3GAN, Johnstone and screenwriter Akela Cooper know what jokes work and when to hold back. Gags that could be quickly exhausted are parcelled out, preserving a spirit of spontaneity. What could be a fart joke instead ridicules stagnant corporations that pander to children with fart jokes. Supporting cast members Ronny Chieng and Lori Dungey shine as officious creeps. Alison Williams summons the oblivious self-regard of Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg, and there is satisfaction in seeing Williams get to nail this too-often male comedy archetype. If you relish the caustic absurdity of Silicon Valley and Veep, M3GAN will satisfy that craving.
Thematically, the film hones in on Silicon Valley titans who promise utopia but lack the ethical understanding and technical competence in the industries (education, transport, security) they purport to be ‘optimising’. The other prong of satire is toward parents who willingly co-parent their children with iPads and TikTok. You could perceive this as punching down on embattled parents, but the heightened tone keeps things comfortably removed: “At least I didn’t give my child a killer android toy”. The film’s critique of targeting data harvesting tech towards children is old, but situating this concern in a horror context is new. Horror films thrive by resonating with the anxieties of their moment, and Cady’s insistence that she learns more from M3GAN than she ever could from school rings true with the growing unease about how search engines privilege knowledge over wisdom.
The film’s handling of grief is standard Hollywood fare, and, title character aside, the overall look is perfunctory, betraying a limited visual imagination. Returning to Chucky, compare the featureless corridors of M3GAN to the atmospheric shadows and lived-in environments of the first Child’s Play (shot by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cinematographer Bill Butler). Likewise, horror fans may feel shortchanged on thrills. You can see why the studio is trying to sell M3GAN as a genuine nail-biter and garner that loyal genre audience, but the material has to deliver. Interviewed about writing the 2018 Halloween remake/sequel, comedian Danny McBride said he set out to write the movie he’d always wished to see, in which slasher villain Michael Myers cut loose and went on an uninterrupted ten-minute murder spree. Watching M3GAN at the cinema, I could feel the crowd revving up for the third act as the killer toy movie finally got to the killer toy bit. Unfortunately, a late-stage location change stalls the climax’s momentum and depletes M3GAN’s menace for an unconvincing conclusion.
M3GAN‘s young personalities and approachable scares will make it a popular choice for teen Halloween parties this coming year. The film’s funny, coherent riff on Silicon Valley forays into childrearing make it an engaging watch for adults as well.