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‘M3GAN’ Is the Killer-Robot Blair Waldorf You Didn’t Know You Needed

m3gan review

Is there anything M3GAN can’t do? At 4 feet tall, she is small but mighty. When you forget to flush or wash your hands, she’ll remind you. She can explain the science behind using a drink coaster and ensure that you always will. At night, she can read you bedtime stories; by day, she can record your memories and preserve them for you forever. She sings, dances and reads emotional states: She is fully equipped to meet you where you are. When you fall, she’ll catch you. And when you’re bullied? Well

M3GAN — short for Model 3 Generative Android — is a humanoid babydoll terror designed by Gemma (Allison Williams) to be every kid’s best friend: a toy so good that you don’t need any other toys. M3GAN, the new movie written by Akela Cooper (Malignant) and directed by Gerard Johnstone, is a dark horror comedy about everything that could possibly go wrong when a doll like this is set loose on the world. It gets ugly, but it doesn’t start that way. To start, M3GAN is a prototype designed and coded by Gemma and two colleagues, Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez) and Tess (Jen Van Epps), who all work at the Funki toy company under a silly and domineering boss (played by Ronny Chieng) who just wants them to make cheaper A.I. pets in the style of the company’s trademark Purrpetual Petz, which can fart and poop on command. Instead, they venture to make the opposite: a more expensive, more involved, more dangerous (they don’t know this part yet) toy to rule all toys: M3GAN. What starts as an idea becomes a nightmare. (M3GAN is played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis).

But again, it was never supposed to be a nightmare. One of the more fun things about M3GAN, besides the batshit megabitch AI in pop starlet’s form at the center of the movie, is that this is all, immediately, such a bad idea. M3GAN, the doll, only gets fast-tracked because Gemma’s life demands it. Her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), has suddenly been orphaned, and Gemma takes her in. But the only toys Gemma has around, ironically, are collectibles. And the only mothering she was prepared to do was of her tech babies, the little projects she grows in her lab. M3GAN was supposed to be a solution: a secondary parent (first red flag) for an aunt unprepared to deal with the emotional needs of a little girl (second red flag), whose efficacy is founded on solid tech, like being able to study the conversational models of children’s speech (third) in order to better understand and simulate them (fourth).

You have to expect that a doll dressed like the worst early aughts prep school girl you’ve ever known, like a villain from OG Gossip Girl Season One, is going to start murdering folks. It’s harder to imagine that she wouldn’t. And that’s half of the movie’s appeal. The trailer went viral because it was so gleefully silly: a robot Blair Waldorf with dance moves and a kill list. What makes M3GAN a little different from her horror movie forebears, like Chucky, the Gremlins, or the demon dolls of Puppetmaster, is that her mission is to protect her owner. She wasn’t designed to be evil; the threats of the world make her evil. Ostensibly. She’s a little like Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her, too: a piece of intelligent A.I. who surpasses her intended uses because she’s too plugged-in, knows too much, grows far beyond the parameters of her existence.

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Cady (Violet McGraw), M3GAN and Gemma (Allison Williams) in M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone.Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

Anyway — people die. Mayhem ensues. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that M3GAN is fully unhinged, because it could go much further than it does, and be darker, scarier on every front, including morally. The material is right there. But what the movie gets right are the small delights. There’s something about watching an overgrown Bratz doll rip someone’s ear off… Or start singing Sia, spontaneously, when no one asked for it. The initial joy of M3GAN is that her enemies are your enemies: they’re clearly the bad guys, and it’s just as clear that M3GAN is going to blur those lines. The movie’s got a wit to it. It knows why we’re here, but offers a nice psychological buttress for it all anyway — a real sense of danger, on Cady’s behalf, that heightens what’s at stake and maybe even adds a dash of suspense. What’s hard isn’t watching M3GAN kill people. It’s the thought that a vulnerable, impressionable little girl might get sucked into the madness — because you fully understand how she could.

A better version of this movie would really go for it, take all of its smirking wit and tech jokes and eye-rolling at the emotional incapacity of adults and make us both laugh harder and worry more. What’s here is fine enough. The movie is PG-13 and not entirely worse off for it. You’ll want to see M3GAN cut loose, slit a few more throats, maybe throw a grenade or two or organize a coup. But she can only go so far. M3GAN’s best moments aren’t of outright terror or violence but of sneaky, witty implication, which Davis’s voice acting gets perfectly right. It’s moments like M3GAN cocking her head and looking at people with a nonverbal “told you so,” or quickly flitting her eyes between friend and foe, sizing everyone up, undoubtedly thinking through the logistics of her next murder. 

You can see her thinking, which is the truly horrifying thing. Because what could she possibly be thinking about, except violence? The movie almost stumbles when it remembers that M3GAN basically already knows everything and can do anything, because the real joy is in watching her figure things out. Well — the joy, and the terror. When the movie closes in on her eyes and allows us to feel like she’s processing everything, taking it all in, and weighing the threats, it’s really onto something. Because that’s the M3GAN worth being afraid of. Not the M3GAN with a knife. But the M3GAN with a mind.

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