If you’ve seen the trailers for M3GAN, you pretty much know the story. Allison Williams plays Gemma, a roboticist who works for a company that builds AI toys. When her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car crash in the opening moments of the film, she is left in charge of her nine-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw). Despite working with toys, Gemma has no experience with children, and it shows. She is awkward around Cady, doesn’t understand simple things like having toys available for kids, and avoids talking about difficult topics—like her parents’ death. Instead, Gemma fast-tracks a new toy she has been building, a Model 3 Generative Android – M3GAN for short.
M3GAN is a doll that syncs up and learns from a child—in this case, Cady. She has all sorts of fancy-schmancy AI bells and whistles that mean she can learn whatever the child needs to know, from facts about condensation, to how to draw and dance, to just holding a conversation and being a good listener. Cady becomes attached to M3GAN very quickly. M3GAN becomes just as attached to Cady, just as quickly – but with deadlier results. For you see, M3GAN’s prime directive is to protect Cady, physically and emotionally. So when someone hurts Cady, M3GAN takes that personally. And then she becomes less like Raggedy Ann and more like The Terminator.
There are no twists in M3GAN. There is no big surprise, nothing you aren’t expecting. Part of that is due to the marketing department, which gave the whole movie away in the second trailer. But despite that, M3GAN is still a great movie. It is fun, it is funny, and it is weird. One of the best shots in the film has M3GAN sitting on a toy table, surrounded by traditional stuffed teddy bears and puppies and whatnot. And then there is M3GAN, sitting silently, with a grave expression on her blank, not-quite-human face.
M3GAN herself is a marvel. Created with a combination of puppetry, animatronics, VFX, and a human actor (Amie Donald, with a voice by Jenna Davis), it’s hard to tell when she is real, when she is fake, and when she is a combination. The sound design of M3GAN certainly helps the illusion of the character. With virtually every step, M3GAN whirred and clicked, the sounds of gears moving. Not loud enough to be obnoxious, just noticeable, so that it’s clear M3GAN is a robot. Jenna Davis brings an especially joyous vocalization to M3GAN, making her sound both lighthearted and somehow ominous. The human actors are also great. Allison Williams brought her A-game, as always, playing Gemma as an overwhelmed aunt who thinks she has it all under control. Especially impressive is young Violet McGraw, who was endearing as Cady, bringing both a sadness over the death of her parents and a joy over her new friend. She is a brat when she needs to be, and she is caring when the time is right.
The movie isn’t perfect. There were a couple of minor plot details that felt tossed in, namely a hint of corporate espionage that is referred to later on but never really explored in any meaningful way, and the film would have been fine without this addition. The film also takes its time before we get to any sort of danger, but luckily, M3GAN is funny enough to keep the story flowing.
M3GAN might just become the Malignant of 2023. It doesn’t have a twist, but it is a weird, bonkers movie. Director Gerard Johnstone knocked it out of the park with his second film. It’s not traditionally scary, but it is existentially scary. As the world makes greater strides in AI and robotics, these kinds of scenarios become more terrifyingly possible. Luckily, you have the strange image of M3GAN twerking or driving an expensive sports car to make you giggle past the discomfort.
M3GAN comes to theaters on January 6.