One of the many beautiful things about the horror genre is its wildly eclectic variety. You have films that are terrifying (The Dark and the Wicked, 2020) and heartbreaking (Relic, 2020) in their various terrors — and then you get something like Malignant (2021) which pairs its grisly kills with bonkers shenanigans guaranteed to leave you smiling (if not hooting and hollering) all the way through its wild finale. The filmmakers behind that gem are back this year with another piece of genre entertainment aiming to both thrill and entertain, and while M3gan isn’t nearly as audacious as Malignant it’s still a goofy good time at the movies.
Cady (Violet McGraw) is a typical kid drawn to toys that speak her language, but she’s left emotionally shattered when her parents are killed in a car crash. Her guardianship falls to her mom’s sister, Gemma (Allison Williams), a tech designer for a big toy company, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Gemma’s been trying to get her ultra-expensive, four-foot tall robotic toy, M3gan, across the finish line, and in Cady’s grief she sees an opportunity that might just benefit everyone involved. M3gan (aka Model 3 Generative Android) is constantly learning, not just about its owner but also the world in general, and what could possibly go wrong when you pair that growing self-awareness with superhuman strength?
As she did with Malignant, writer Akela Cooper has taken a familiar premise and tweaked it into something that values fun as much as it does the expected genre beats. M3gan riffs on numerous films, from Child’s Play (1988) to Man’s Best Friend (1993), and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that inviting a pint-sized science project into the home is a recipe for carnage. Where it finds its own footing, though, is in a gleeful embrace of the ridiculousness of it all. While not a straight-up comedy, M3gan is a fun film that knows it’s fun. Gerard Johnstone (2014’s fantastic Housebound) steps into the director’s chair (while Malignant-helmer James Wan puts on his producer hat) and proves a fitting match for Cooper’s creation ensuring a violent romp with its tongue firmly planted in cheek.
In addition to the films mentioned above, M3gan seems equally inspired by the likes of Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend (1986). More than just the robotic character turned killer, though, they share an appreciation of where grief can lead if left unchecked. True, the teen inventor in Craven’s film was sad about missing some horndog opportunities with Kristy Swanson while Cady is legitimately and devastatingly crushed, but both films see people trying to fill emotional holes with technology. M3gan actually succeeds early on at acknowledging that grief and the irrational choices that sometimes follow, and its commentary on our addiction to screens over each other isn’t hard to miss. (Although the film does miss a basketball-themed opportunity to nod directly towards Deadly Friend when it comes to dispatching the pesky neighbor…)
As with Malignant, Cooper’s script for M3gan is confident enough to leave dangling threads and illogical choices aplenty — why give a kids toy superhuman strength? has Gemma never heard of the First Law of Robotics? what CEO would rush a toy capable of crushing heads into production with zero testing? why does Gemma show *zero* emotion or reaction to the death of her sister? — but they’re meaningless questions here. While they’d sink a more serious movie, the film’s tone and energy make it easy to shake them all off with a knowing wink.
It’s silly, and that’s more than just okay — it’s absolutely necessary sometimes. M3gan’s style and sass lean campy one moment and unsettling the next, and Johnstone keeps apace of the script’s tone with energetic visuals and some smart direction of the young woman playing the doll. Her face is a combination of practical and digital effects, but it’s Amie Donald bringing life to the doll with her uncanny movement, well-timed turns, and unforgettable dance moves. Yes, you read that right, and the sequence is fire with a killer needle drop.
At just over a hundred minutes, M3gan takes a bit to get moving, but it’s never dull. McGraw does good work, Williams knows exactly what kind of film she’s in, and supporting players like Ronny Chieng find some laughs as her frazzled boss. There are also some big laughs here including a line delivery by a cop and a quick body bag shot, but you’ll find yourself wishing that M3gan herself had a few more moments to shine. The kills are fun — yes, even within the confines of a PG-13 rating — but the film’s length suggests there really should be more set-pieces that send the small wonder into a homicidal rage.
M3gan is a goofy movie. Some fun horror movies find that designation unintentionally, but Johnstone, Cooper, and Wan know exactly what they’re doing here — and we’re hoping they do it again every year going forward.
Related Topics: Akela Cooper, James Wan