Review: M3GAN, You've Got a Friend in Her?
James Wan and Blumhouse Team Up for Dolls Gone Evil
On the one hand, society (or much of it) constantly teases girls for playing with dolls, seeing it as something trite, cute, femme, and most of all, a sign of weakness and docility. On the other hand, if a lot of horror films are to be believed, people are also terrified of dolls. Possibly because of the timing, as AI and our technology-obsessed culture becomes more glaring when we see devices such as tablets in the hands of children, it's no wonder someone's thought of putting these two objects together.
And it's no wonder that horror cornerstones James Wan and Blumhouse are working together (why did it take so long?) M3GAN is a worthy beginning. Screenwriter Akela Cooper (Malignant, American Horror Story) proves once again she's one of our brightest screenwriting stars, with a warped yet oddly believable and modern tale that wears its fear on its pretty ruffled sleeve, with plenty of jump scares and commentary on the contemporary family and working woman. Throw in director Gerald Johnstone (Housebound), whose part work explores some of these ideas, and this is a winning combination.
Gemma (Allison Williams, Get Out, The Perfection) is a brilliant roboticist working for a top toy company, and she's under pressure to create a toy companion for kids that people can afford. Right when she's at her deadline, tragedy strikes: her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car accident, leaving behind their 8-year-old daughter Cady (Violet McGraw, Ready Player One). But Cady's needs - a companion, a confident, a friend - give Gemma an idea. Thus is born M3gan, a 4-feet-tall, blonde, cute-as-a-button talking doll who will protect Cady from harm, teach her, and be her best friend. Of course she's equipped with an internal processor that learns and adapts, and M3gan takes her job very seriously and literally.
If you've seen the trailer, you know where the film is going. Heck, if you only read the plot outline, you can guess where it's going. But this is about the journey, and both Cooper and Johnstone know there is no point in subtlety. This does not mean that the film isn't clever, far from it. Cooper has given us characters and dialogue that demonstrate a deep understanding of the pressures of working women, the pain of little girls left all alone, and the dangers of both of those people filling the void with artificial connections. Johnstone uses the tools given to him to perfectly pace out the terror - he knows exactly how long to keep his audience waiting for that hand or face to come out of the shadow.
Gemma never wanted to be a mother, so for her, at least at first, it's fine to let M3gan do the job while she works on perfecting her creation. Cady, just on the cusp of tweenhood, is still a child, unable and unwilling to process the terrible trauma that has happened to her, and M3gan provides a way to let her just be a happy child for as long as she's able. Neither of these scenarios are going to work; Gemma finds herself parenting out of necessity and growing desire, to have a personal connection and not just a life filled with work. Cady is quickly becoming a brat (to put it mildly), a emotional state that M3gan, as she grows and learns, is only too happy to indulge.
Both Williams and McGraw, as well as the supporting cast, do a great job of setting the stage and their characters go through this rather unusual scenario (Williams especially has embraced horror with such enthusiasm in her feature film career this far), but it certainly helps that they are not acting against CGI, but a puppet. You could not pull off this story without M3gan being in the room, and this is a case where the uncanny valley is precisely the reaction needed. With a real actor being used for some of the movement and the voice work (Amie Donald and Jenna Davis, respectively), you feel the creepiness and sinking fear each time the camera is on M3gan: she has that tween look of simultaneous innocence and deviousness, knowledge without maturity, and the power of a robot on top of that means, well, there are some pretty gruesome yet darkly funny moments of action and gore.
M3GAN is pretty much the perfect sci fi-horror-action film to kick off a new year. Good for both the adult and teenage crowd, with a relatable subject, engaging characters, exploring our fears of the old (dolls) and the new (invasive technology), with the perfect blend of scares and dark laughs to keep the audience on the proverbial edge of their seats.
- Gerard Johnstone
- Akela Cooper
- James Wan
- Allison Williams
- Violet McGraw
- Ronny Chieng