Directed by: Gerard Johnstone
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Written by Patrick Hao
From the very first moments of “M3GAN,” a tongue-in-cheek “Saturday Night Live”-style parody commercial of a toy, the audience knows the film is as self-aware of the ludicrousness of its premise as the audience is. “M3GAN” takes the familiar beats of the modern-day horror genre and tries to have some fun with it. When Cady (Violet McGraw) is involved in a car accident that leaves her parentless, the film is seemingly poking fun at the way horror films have geared towards horror based on trauma in recent years. When Cady is saddled with her career-focused aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams), the film becomes superficially about the real anxieties of parents’ reliance on technology to stand in for the absent parent. But, that is only superficially. The real reason why “M3GAN” exists is to attempt to introduce us to a new horror icon which it does to varying success.
Played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, M3GAN stands for Model 3 Generation Android. She is created by Gemma, a talented engineer at a toy company, trying to make the next great toy. Using Cady as a guinea pig of sorts, M3GAN’s constantly self-learning artificial intelligence and devotion to whatever child she pairs with, is intended to make her the perfect toy and companion to any child. She is a good listener, reads bedtime stories with different voices, and even stands up to bullies. Of course, this premise leads to M3GAN deciding that everything is potentially harmful to Cady and going on a murderous rampage against those who come close to harming her physically and emotionally.
Central to what makes “M3GAN” work is her design combined with Amie Donald’s stilted physicality, embodying the creepy unease of the uncanny valley that dolls tend to evoke. Jenna Davis’ voice, pitched to a perfect little girl squeak, further enhances the unsettling inhumane nature of M3GAN. The film, however, is tongue-in-cheek in a way that is entertaining, but not fully satisfying. The inherent silliness of M3GAN singing a lullaby rendition of “Titanium” or the dance she does is fun and is sure to garner laughs but it becomes clear director Gerard Johnstone is making a movie for the memes rather than something self-sustaining.
What it is missing is the James Wan touch, a producer on the film, and a director who always knew how to balance tones of silliness with horror. Two years ago, when Wan directed “Malignant,” written by Akela Cooper, the same screenwriter of “M3GAN,” he was able to perfectly capture a satisfying combination of horror and comedy. That movie sold its horror elements which just made the WTF ending hit that much harder. Inherent to “M3GAN’s” problem is that it is not scary. It is not even particularly creepy. Add the fact that the kills, say for one, are all underwhelming, it never reaches the heights that an exploitation feature of this ilk could reach. This is especially disappointing because Gerard Johnstone did make a horror comedy that had a decent handle on the tonal elements with his debut feature, “Housebound.”
“M3GAN” is too tame, a movie that is made to be appropriate for teenagers as opposed to a movie made for teenagers to sneak into. Like the eponymous hero, the film is too perfectly calibrated serving exactly what it is programmed to do and that is to be merely a serviceable good time. I do enjoy the dance.