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M3GAN (2023) review

January 6, 2023

 

written by: Akela Cooper and James Wan (story) and Akela Cooper (screenplay)
produced by: Jason Blum and James Wan
directed by: Gerard Johnstone
rated: PG-13 (for violent content and terror, some strong language and a suggestive reference)
runtime: 102 min.
U.S. release date: January 6, 2023

 

All January horror flicks should be as good as the outrageous “M3GAN” a sci-fi horror flick that fully and confidently embraces what it is. Typically, the first month of the year is a dumping ground for crappy and lame retread horror flicks (or the latest interchangeable Liam Neeson actioner) and one generally goes in simply looking for a break from the heavy subject matter of the often verbose award-season fare. Well, director Gerard Johnston (who helmed 2014’s clever “Housebound”) delivers on all levels, fully embracing what many will expect in a robot-gone-haywire premise, while taking so much ridiculousness seriously in a refreshingly hilarious approach.

Much credit should be given to screenwriter Akela Cooper (who wrote the instant classic, “Malignant” from 2021), who came up with the story with James Wan (who co-produces with Jason Blum, as part of Blumhouse productions), creating a wickedly clever look at how our addiction and reliance on technology is no replacement for true emotional connection. Yeah, we already knew all that, but how it’s presented here is an absolute riot.

The opening fifteen minutes of “M3GAN” may lay out all that will eventually transpire later on, but it also becomes immediately clear this isn’t a movie that’s trying to pull one over on you. It relishes knowing that you know what its doing and there’s fun in that.

 

 

A winter tragedy occurs, the kind we’ve seen over and over again, wherein nine-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) is orphaned and is court-appointed to go live with her single aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) in Seattle. Gemma specializes in robotics for a Seattle-based toy corporation amusingly called Funki and had was behind the recent hit toy called “PurrPetual Petz” (HA!), which can talk, fart, and poop (endless entertainment for kids) when its owner engages with it on a tablet. The popularity of this toy is established by the movie’s cold open, which also firmly sets the witty and unexpectedly funny tone of “M3GAN” and is best discovered on your own, in a theater, surrounded by fellow unsuspecting viewers.

Gemma does her best to make the traumatized Cady feel at home in her cold and tech-reliant home (where collectible toys are still packaged and displayed on shelves), but the workaholic designer is at a loss, more in touch with connecting to her inner child than she is an actual child. She spent her college years creating a 7-foot robot that’s slumped over in a corner of her home workshop and she now spends the majority of her time working alongside fellow design colleagues, Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Will (Brian Jordan Alvarez), but when she realizes her sullen niece could benefit from a companion to connect with, she secretly finishes work on a prototype her obnoxious employer, David (a hilarious Ronny Chieng), ordered her to put aside. He’d prefer she regurgitate the next sure thing, something akin to the furry toys that made the company a cashflow, but Gemma knows she has created something that will become more than a toy.

The result is M3GAN (which stands for “Model 3 Generative Android”), a 4-foot tall smart doll that promises to offer physical and emotional safety to whatever child it is electronically paired with. All the child has to do is hold the robot’s hand, make an introduction and an instant connection is formed. That’s exactly what Gemma has Cady do as she allows the eerie prototype to connect with her niece, developing a bond that gives the traumatized girl support and protection while Gemma and her design team figures out how to market this miracle to the masses. Gemma’s hold on M3GAN is fleeting, as she becomes curious about death and refuses to power down when told to, keeping a vigilant watch on Cady and confronting anyone who threatens her companion or gets in the way of their friendship.

Programmed with artificial intelligence that adapts and self-learns, M3GAN is truly something to behold, both for the characters in the movie who meet her and the viewers that sit in the theater and take her in. Her appearance is striking, from the golden brown hair that flows to her shoulders, to the lifelike rubber face that houses her enormously expressive blue eyes, and wearing a beige dress with an American Girl-like bow and cream-colored leggings that cover an impenetrable titanium skeleton. Before you can determine what exactly she is, M3GAN has already calculated the percentages of your emotions, from greatest to least, in order to determine how to engage with you, whether its providing emotional comfort or ending your life.

 

 

M3GAN is such a bizarre and unnerving presence, that she becomes the highlight of the movie. Not bad, considering the movie is named after her. After all, it could’ve been a schlockly “robot-gone-wrong”, “evil toy” and “demon child” amalgam, but Cooper’s screenplay is more clever than that. Johnstone and his cast lean on the creepy doll factor we all know about – really, if you don’t find dolls creepy, I’m concerned – but, the best parts are simply the various conversations Gemma has with M3GAN, especially when we see the robot use manipulation in uncanny ways. There’s also a pretty amazing scene where M3GAN unexpectedly provides emotional comfort to a distraught Cady during a Funki presentation for financial investors.

What’s odd though is how the character of M3GAN also provides some of the most compelling acting in the movie, thanks to a combination of the sublime voice work by Jenna Davis and meticulous physical acting by Amie Donald, as well as practical makeup artists Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse (of Morot FX Studio) and the impressive digital visual effects from the New Zealand-based Wētā FX studio, all amazing artists that enhance her interaction with others, whether they are subtle and soothing (that includes laugh-out-loud cheesy songs) or a fierce aggressiveness that stems from an awareness of danger or trouble. It becomes quite amusing to watch the different ways in which M3GAN responds to life around her, with Johnstone really working the cold stares, off-the-cuff remarks, and knowing glares of this robot gone rogue.

Most of the time, the humans in the movie behave in laughably predictable ways, but that kind of pairs perfectly with the overall tone of it all. We don’t expect Willams’ Gemma to all of a sudden fit the role of a connected parent when her life has been devoted to work for so long. She makes bad decisions and is kind of clueless as a guardian, but that’s to be expected considering who her character is and where we know this movie is going. Williams, who has adeptly navigated the horror genre in the past with “Get Out” and “The Perfection”, is fully committed to the ridiculousness of it all and often understandably responds the way most of us would when she realizes M3GAN becomes much more than she was intended to be.

More time could’ve been given to developing who young Cady is as a person, especially considering the grief she is processing. Who was she before her tragedy and how has she changed since? There are some scenes that address this, but once Cady is connected with M3GAN, the screenplay wastes no time fast-tracking her into snarky teen mode, with little room for nuance. Sure, it’s established early on that like many kids her age, she is easily succumbed to screens, but that’s all of us, regardless of age. When the climactic third act kicks in, we see a difference in Cady, but it seems a little too sudden.

The success of “M3GAN” primarily rests on how Johnstone and Cooper embrace the absolute absurdity of it all. They are taking how dolls have been used in past horror genre entries and rebooting it for these technologically reliant times.

As far as horror goes, “M3GAN” is mild, compared to other modern-day genre entries and that’s fine. Any more bloodshed would feel too by-the-numbers. It’s more interesting to see the emotional effects M3GAN has on Cady, which what Cooper covers best here. While most of the tension is saved for the climax, there’s still plenty of weirdness to invest in…and the laugh-out-loud moments are plenty.

For some reason, “M3GAN” had its world premiere in Los Angeles on December 7th, 2022. Maybe Universal Pictures is hoping for some Oscar buzz, which would be fitting just for its technical merits. It would be great to see it get a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Comedy or Musical category, since it’s laugh-out-loud and even features some bugnuts singing from its titular character. Ordinarily, I would roll my eyes at how memeable or GIFable a movie is, but it’s been fun to watch how clever the marketing team has been for “M3GAN”. Sure, scenes in the trailer and in social media has given away some key moments, but seeing them in context really solidifies how well it all works. The audience I saw “M3GAN” with was understandably uproarious and there’s no doubt this will be another toy story hit and the first great movie of 2023.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

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