Generally, I’m not too fond of horror films rated PG-13, usually because the film was cut into ribbons to achieve the rating when it was originally intended for the more obvious R-rating. You can see that in films like Shark Night 3D and Prom Night (2008), the latter of which has an unrated version you can see, though it is not much better than the initial cut. The films can be cheesy good at times, and Prom Night often finds itself on my rewatch list. Just not because it was a good film. Then, the viral buzz around M3gan began to trickle into view. I won’t lie. I was wary – not completely because of the PG-13 rating – because creepy dolls creep me out. The Chucky franchise and all things Anabelle are terrifying, which usually means they’re great horror-filled fun. My most looked-forward-to horror film of the year is Scream VI. In my opinion, there’s never going to be a bad Scream film. Which meant I needed to push the boundaries for me and go check out M3gan. And I am so glad that I did.
Allison Williams plays the main character, Gemma, who is tasked with raising her sister and brother-in-law dies in a car accident, leaving their daughter Cady (Violet McGraw) as the only survivor. Gemma is a roboticist and a visionary who imagines a world where AI is fully integrated into every aspect of a person’s life. If you’ve seen Smart House with Katey Segal, you know where this is going. The title character is a child-sized doll, cute, intelligent, and designed to be loyal to her primary user in every regard. With such broad parameters, isn’t it a wonder that it took her so long to go off the deep end as it did in the actual film?
M3gan, which stands for Model 3 Generative Android, is a passion project that Gemma and her two colleagues, Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez), have used company funds in order to produce her, certain that M3gan will prove her worth to their boss, David (Ronny Chieng). Unfortunately, their initial test fails spectacularly because a single piece is not installed, leading to a fiery malfunction in front of David and his assistant, Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten). That aside, at a later point in the film, after M3gan proves to be a success, a price point of $10,000 is dropped, and I was never quite certain if that was a dig at Disney’s Star Wars hotel package or just a run of the mill commentary on how expensive toys and games have become in recent years. With Gemma’s fascination with collectibles – the toys we do not open or play with and are chastised for not doing those things – it is more than likely somewhere in the middle with a focus on the latter.
Cady, still grieving the loss of her parents, does not immediately connect with Gemma, as the latter is not prepared to be a guardian when she is thrust into the role. Instead, the film takes a powerful path through psychology, focusing on the after-effects of a traumatic experience. In this case, the deaths of Cady’s parents are a vehicle (no pun intended) to showcase how attachment theory can develop. Lydia (played by Amy Usherwood) is a court-mandated therapist, there to see if Gemma is the best fit for Cady or if the girl should go and live with her father’s parents, who are desperately, eagerly hoping to get custody of Cady. At this point, the emotional connection between Cady and M3gan is deep, and the pair are near-inseparable. Lydia explains that children who go through traumatic events will often bond with the next person they get close to. It should have been Gemma, a detail that is a blink, and you’ll miss it, as this attachment is transferred to M3gan shortly after that. It begs the question if Gemma simply didn’t feel as if she had the right to form that kind of relationship with Cady or if she just didn’t feel able to do it.
By the time the murders have started, we have spent a lot of time getting to see how M3gan operates. With each specific detail, Gemma gives, we find that the exact opposite is the case. For example, Gemma explains that M3gan can remind children of routine matters without losing patience – only to show M3gan losing her patience with Cady’s inability to flush the toilet. One of the first times, late into the film that Gemma realizes this is after a few suspicious deaths have already occurred, and M3gan does not remind Cady to put her glass on the coaster. This, despite having spent several moments explaining the reasoning behind placing cups on coasters on wood tables, with Cady finally understanding the importance of it all. For me, this was used to emphasize just how hands-off Gemma has been with Cady, effectively allowing M3gan to replace her as Cady’s guardian. This is not something that is missed by those around her, with Lydia and Tess commenting on the fact and Gemma brushing them off.
Amie Donald and Jenna Davis pull double duty as M3gan, with the former playing the character and the latter providing the voice. As the centerpiece of the film, M3gan holds the screen throughout the entire film. The character, not to mention the concept, is captivating through and through.
Like most films that deal with speculative, advanced technology, M3gan delves deep into the issues inherent in them that we fear might be true. M3gan does not stop learning and finds ways around the parameters that were set in the first place, never mind those that are attempted to be added in after the fact. Artificial intelligence is especially feared in film and literature, as its full capabilities are unknown, but its ability to replace normal human function is. Gemma has outfitted AI throughout her life, giving M3gan ample opportunities to infiltrate their lives without being detected. Only a few things give this interference away, though one must wonder if that was so the plot could move forward or hint at M3gan’s lack of nuance. Regardless, this film was not afraid to set the bar high, creating a viral phenomenon that propelled it to the top of the box office and more than make back its budget. It even sought to break Jason Blum’s apparent cardinal rule about not discussing sequels ahead of time.
If M3gan 2.0 can capture even half of the lightning in a bottle that the first outing managed, it will be a roaring success.