Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Director: Gerald Johnstone
Cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Ronny Chieng and Lori Dungey
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Available in wide theatrical release
The ghost in the machine is nothing new in cinema. Ever since HAL, the self-aware computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” refused to open the “pod bay doors,” movies have played on our fear of artificial intelligence. And the basis of that concern is that the machine might act as we do, that the computer might become as human as we are.
In “2001,” the HAL 9000 (voiced perfectly by Douglas Rain) spoke with a serene monotone, but the words the machine used were utterly organic, eerily familiar. HAL referred to itself using “I,” and often that was coupled with “sorry,” an empty adjective many of us use as a meaningless refrain. HAL’s continued use of “sorry” was anything but reassuring.
The murderous robotic doll in “M3GAN” owes a great debt to HAL and all the sentient contraptions that litter the history of movies. James Wan, the director who began his career with the breakout hit “Saw,” is given a story credit for “M3GAN.” He said the concept started with the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a killer doll movie that was ‘Annabelle’ meets ‘The Terminator’?” And that’s almost all you need to know about the film.
His previous killer doll films, namely 2014’s “Annabelle,” which he produced, dealt with a doll as a supernatural conduit. The doll didn’t actually kill anyone; instead, a sinister entity works through the inanimate object to wreak havoc. “M3GAN” takes that idea further in the most obvious way possible. And because viewers are comfortable with the killer artificial intelligence conceit, it works on an exploitative and entertaining level.
In “M3GAN,” preteen Cady (Violet McGraw) loses her parents in a shocking car accident. Her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams), reluctantly steps in to take custody of the little girl. Gemma is a super-smart computer engineer and roboticist who works for a huge toy company. The company’s latest gadget is an interactive doll linked to an iPad. It expands screen time beyond the screen by giving kids a tangible and furry creature to control.
But Gemma is working on something bigger for the company. She and her team, which includes fellow engineers Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez), have created a doll named M3GAN, which stands for Model 3 Generative Android. This life-like companion will be the last toy anyone will ever want.
Because Gemma is under pressure to deliver the product on schedule for her employer, she doesn’t have time to play mom to the suffering Cady. Gemma’s solution is to give Cady M3GAN. This almost supernatural pairing yields immediate results, and Cady appears to come out of her post-traumatic shell. Of course, the bonding with the doll is unhealthy, but Gemma ignores the warning signs.
In one touching sequence, Cady and M3GAN unite at a private presentation to Gemma’s company executives. This terrific scene shows off McGraw’s acting chops, and she could very well be the next Haley Joel Osment. It’s remarkable how moving and unnerving this scene is, and audiences will likely chuckle to relieve tension.
Of course, the evil toy company sees this invention as instrumental to their bottom line and rushes it into production. And the mad dash causes Gemma and her team to cut corners leading to greater and greater power ceded to the doll. The results, teased in the film’s trailers, are nothing new under the sun. Comparisons to “The Terminator” are spot on, as M3GAN becomes a one-doll killing machine.
While “M3GAN” fails to break new ground, it is a slick production that benefits significantly from a manageable running time. While more considerable, thought-provoking, existential questions linger, the script, written by “Malignant” screenwriter Akela Cooper, mainly uses those deeper elements to stage several gleeful action set-pieces.
The film is violent but fits comfortably within its PG-13 rating. I don’t think it would have benefited from R-rated bloodletting. The joy here is seeing the doll take folks apart while dancing uncannily down the corridors of the headquarters of a soulless corporate overlord. The idea of a massive company being taken down by its product is masterful, and I suspect that it will be explored in the inevitable “M3GAN” sequel.
Comparisons to “Child’s Play,” the 1988 film that features the ghost-inhabited doll named Chucky, are hard to dismiss. Of course, introducing computer and robotic technology into the mix helps distinguish this narrative from that movie. Like the prolific killer doll “Chucky” franchise, “M3GAN” is more interested in creeping us out and economic scares than making us think. And that’s perfectly fine, especially when the frights and uncomfortable giggles are this well-produced.
Look elsewhere if you want a satirical, intellectual comment on our dangerous reliance on computer assistants. Patient viewers are encouraged to seek out last year’s android companion movie, “After Yang,” for a dramatic handling of this science fiction concept.
Despite some genre limitations, “M3GAN” is a fun addition to the artificial intelligence run-amuck idea. It’s nothing more than a horror movie that wants desperately to be entertaining instead of provocative.