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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘M3GAN’ attempts to tackle the intricacies of human relationships

Director Gerard Johnstone’s sophomore flick plays out like an extended, albeit fascinating, TikTok about a doll from Hell.

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The new movie “M3GAN,” which was released on Jan. 6, 2023, assembles the (un)holy trinity from horror film hell. We have producers James Wan, who directed “The Conjuring” franchise, and Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum in addition to “Housebound” director Gerard Johnstone, all working together to write about an eerie doll. Working off a screenplay from American Horror Story screenwriter Akela Cooper, M3GAN seems to be striking horror celluloid gold. So far, so scary.

Set in present-day Seattle, “M3GAN” tells the story of Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist at a high-tech robot company, who becomes the guardian of her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), after her parents die in a horrific car crash. After struggling to adjust to her new role as a parent, Gemma employs the help of her top-secret project, the Model 3 Generative Android  —  M3GAN for short —  to raise Cady and become her best friend. M3GAN, superficially, is the perfect invention — she helps Cady pick her outfits, reminds her to wash her hands, draws near-perfect portraits of her and eliminates any perceivable threat to her safety. 

M3GAN conceptually comes from a long line of terror-inflicting dolls. Think of Chucky from “Child’s Play” and “Annabelle.” It’s worth considering what makes these dolls — objects of children’s play fantasies — so compelling to the horror genre. Is it the ghost of our pasts that we cannot seem to outrun, manifesting in the things that gave us comfort as children? Maybe it’s their haunting hollow porcelain faces that we cradled as children. Whatever the reason, M3GAN outshines both Chucky and Annabelle for a simple reason — she’s in on the joke. Throughout, the filmmakers make fun of themselves and the film itself.

This is Cooper and Wan’s biggest success: they revel in, rather than run from, the stupidity of their viral creation. M3GAN is undoubtedly campy; when she is unveiled, the head scientist at Gemma’s firm has one question: “More or less than a Tesla?” M3GAN looks expensive. Dressed in what seems to be Blair Waldorf’s 2010 archive, she dons classy trench coats, satin bows, designer purple-rimmed sunglasses and black ballet flats. Coupled with her dry, blank stare, M3GAN’s eventual descent into Terminator-like madness doesn’t seem completely off-character. The doll, modeled off middle-school mean girl energy, exists as oddly hypnotic: you want to beat her, but you also kind of want to be her. 

This light touch and unserious tone permeates the rest of the film too. Peppered with laugh-out-loud moments, “M3GAN” attempts to tackle the messy intricacies of human relationships without being too heavy-handed. There’s well executed messaging about the modern complexities of motherhood — how women, in today’s patriarchal set up, must find a way to balance a prominent career while successfully parenting. The movie also highlights our dangerous over-reliance on the technologies we use on a daily basis. However, the writers never let the messaging overpower the storytelling. It’s tucked into various narrative threads and becomes very apparent once the plot starts to come together, building to a rousing, albeit predictable, finish.  

Irrespective of what has already been said about it, “M3GAN” is an extremely successful film. Made on a shoestring budget of just $12 million, the film has garnered over ten times its investment, sitting at $146 million at the global box office. This begs the question: What has made this robotic doll so popular? Why is she such an internet sensation? 

Blumhouse has always been fantastic marketers — think how they transformed Jordan Peele from half of a comedy duo to horror’s most promising new director overnight. Here, they seem to have wisely positioned M3GAN as a queer icon for the LGBTQ+ community, even inspiring a SNL skit. Think what happened with “Morbius” (2022) — except here, everyone, including the filmmakers, is in on the joke.

Cooper believes that the film may resonate with the community because it drives home the idea of found family after losing one’s own, a feeling that many LGBTQ+ folks can relate to. Whatever the cause, M3GAN is a sensation. Her egregiously Charli D’Amelio-esque dance moves, Regina George-influenced quips — voiced by a deadpan Jenna Davis — and signature snark seem to attract online viewers, who have flocked to theaters to patronize the production.  

The movie’s technical department does a marvelous job. The cinematography by Peter McCaffrey feels eerie yet intimate. The background score and music selection by Anthony Willis is inspired by both the ‘campy’ horror movies of the past and teen dramas of the present — the use of a creepy remix of Taylor Swift’s “It’s Nice To Have a Friend” in the film’s first trailer is a masterstroke. The acting performances are also top-notch. Williams gets Gemma’s reluctantly sympathetic mood just right: When she breaks, we feel her pain. McGraw gives Cady intricate layers. The real star is Amie Donald, who plays the robo femme-fatale. As M3GAN, she’s witty and smart, but deeply dangerous.

Where the film falters, however, is the horror aspect. It’s rarely very frightening, perhaps to retain its generous PG-13 rating. The kill scenes, of which there are less than five —blasphemy in the typically violent Blumhouse flick — lack suspense and gore. While there is a creepy undertone that ebbs and flows throughout the film, it never really crescendos in the climax. But then again, this criticism can be countered by pondering over what kind of film “M3GAN” actually is: a horror-comedy, a pure horror flick, a satire about our over-reliance on technology or an extended skit with mighty intentions and slightly vague messaging?

Ultimately, “M3GAN” actually says more than it appears to. It questions why creating a humanoid robot to play with your children seems so appalling and futuristic, when we so gladly hand five-year-olds iPads to pass away their time. It asks us to ponder the burden we place on women who are  caregivers in our society. It asks us to reflect: Who is the real monster in this film? Is it a modern-day Frankenstein gone rogue, her maker —Gemma, or her selfish object of protection — Cady?

There are a myriad of things to unpack in this horror satire, and I expect to see many think-pieces pop up about it in the coming months. But the bottom line is that “M3GAN” is a fun, silly film about a creepy, snarky doll who seems to have attained icon status in the Twittersphere. Maybe after watching the film, which I highly recommend you do, you’d want a “M3GAN” too.

Rating: ★★★★☆