M3GAN Review: Come For The Killer Doll, Stay For The Thoughtful Parenting Lessons

Who among us can't appreciate a doll that takes the time to pull off a choereographed dance routine before she commits murder?
M3GAN Review: Come For The Killer Doll, Stay For The Thoughtful Parenting Lessons

There are any number of mad science movies, in which an inventor (foolishly) bestows their creation with cutting-edge advancements, only for it to (expectedly) spiral wildly out of control until they devise a way to (just barely) escape and restore balance. There are also any number  of evil doll franchises, from the slasher Child’s Play films to the supernatural Annabelle trilogy. In combining these two genres, M3GAN, about an AI doll that begins to enjoy killing, breathes new life into both.

At first, the film’s light excursions into the topics of increased screentimes and the unscrupulousness of major corporations provide the set-up to what feels like a familiar parable about the dangers of using technology as a crutch. But by the time it builds up to the unhinged glee of its climax, soundtracked by a syrupy sweet rendition of a song reframed as a chilling personal motto, it becomes clear that this horror comedy is anything but conventional, the relative unoriginality of its ideas balanced out by the thoughtfulness with which it asks: Where do we even begin when it comes to raising a generation more advanced than ours ever was? M3GAN’s central theme — the ineptness of modern parenting — is rife with absurd humour, but its concerns make it clear that this is no laughing matter.

It’s this utter helplessness that leads robotics expert Gemma (Allison Williams) to design an AI companion for her young niece Cady (Violet McGraw), shattered by the loss of her parents in a car accident. The workaholic Gemma lacks the space to accommodate the new arrival, emotionally and literally (an exercise bike in the corner of Cady’s new bedroom suggests a hastily repurposed workout space.) She has no idea what to say to her, or even if saying anything at all would help.  A lifetime spent purposefully devising the most complicated machines she can think of has left her woefully underqualified to handle even basic childrearing tasks. Beneath the film’s gags — Cady’s excitement at Gemma’s toys is punctured when she’s informed that they’re collectibles that will lose their value if they’re opened, a heartfelt request for a bedtime story is punctured by the awkwardness of Gemma taking too long to download an app that could help — there lies the potent idea that we’re all so ill-equipped to deal with grief, we’d outsource it if we could. And so she does, delegating the job to four-feet-tall blonde robot M3GAN (a combination of Jenna Davis’ voice and Amie Donald’s physicality) that slips between comforting gestures and contortionist nightmares. 

Williams’ performance is the key to the film’s premise. Unlike her earlier horror films Get Out (2016) and The Perfection (2019), which traded on her ability to conceal sinister motives beneath guileless expressions, M3GAN plays on this straight-faced obliviousness. This is a woman so preoccupied with work, she fully believes that a child will be able to “hold down the fort” for a few hours, unsupervised, while she logs in. Any red flags are to be duly filed away.

M3GAN Review: Come For The Killer Doll, Stay For The Thoughtful Parenting Lessons
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It takes a while for M3GAN to give into the uninhibited lunacy that defined Malignant (2021), Akela Cooper and James Wan’s previous camp horror collaboration, but, working with director Gerard Johnstone, they create a prolonged atmosphere of tension, which they delight in either unexpectedly deflating with a laugh or ramping up with a sudden jolt of fear. Cooper’s script excels at seamless tonal shifts within a single scene — a chilling speech on the pervasive nature of evil in the world segues into an impromptu rendition of David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’. The few jumpscares are effective, but Johnstone crafts much more sustained frights from several slow reveals that unveil the full scope of M3GAN’s abilities, and from innocuous images such as the opening of a curtain or a hand stroking a person’s hair. The kill count is lower than a movie of this sort might lead one to believe, compensated for by the disturbing efficiency of M3GAN’s techniques. 

Unlike the doll, who always knows the right thing to say, the movie falters in parts. Still, makes a compelling case for the messiness of the human experience, the idea that there’s no shortcut to communication and the belief that some experiences are so overwhelming, we lack the language to speak about them at all. That it balances all this with a wicked sense of humour and an out-of-the-blue dance sequence? No child’s play, this.

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