You’ve gotta hand it to marketing people who cut together movie previews — they know how to make everything look better than it actually is. When the preview for the killer doll thriller M3GAN first appeared, it was met with equal measures of derision and elation (at least by me).
The trailer was shrewdly packed with meme-worthy moments — M3GAN doing an interpretive dance as though auditioning for Twyla Tharp, M3GAN suggesting a young victim run before chasing him down on all fours like a rabid robodog — all of which suggested a horror film with extreme camp appeal.
The end product — which hails from Blumhouse, a company that grinds out horror films frequently without regard to quality control — is actually scant on camp. What you see in the previews is pretty much what you get, save a few musical moments that will tickle every gay man alive.
And certainly, forget about anything truly terrifying. M3GAN (★★★☆☆) has a few moments of “forced” suspense and an obligatory jump scare or two, but it’s about as frightening as a Chatty Cathy whose battery is dead. (For a true fright, one with substance, cleverness, and an authentic sense of peril and dread, check out Scott Derrickson’s masterful The Black Phone, also a Blumhouse film, now streaming on Amazon Prime.)
So what, then, is M3GAN? Let’s go with basic January filler — something nutty, askew, and disposable. It’s the kind of movie that gives popcorn a reason to be ingested in tubs the size of your torso.
M3GAN lays out its plot with nary a concern as to whether we can second guess its every move. (Hint: we can, even from the opening scene.) It runs with the concept of a sophisticated, Artificially Intelligent doll that, for some unknown reason — No parental controls? A glitch in its programming matrix? — is born into this world with homicidal intent. (Unlike Chucky, M3GAN is not supernaturally possessed — it’s just smart enough to know that it enjoys the thrill of a kill.)
The malevolence M3GAN shows its victims grows exponentially with each murder. And while the movie has a sluggish start, director Gerard Johnstone pours every ounce of lighter fluid he has at his disposal on the final 30 minutes and simply lights a match. The resulting bonfire is a blazing (and guilty) pleasure to behold.
Written by Akela Cooper (Malignant) from a story by James Wan, who knows a thing or two about franchise building (Saw, Insidious), the film at first takes a Paul Verhoeven approach, featuring a satirical commercial for a faddish buddy-toy called “Purrpetual Pets.” When digitally fed, the creepy little furballs literally poop out pellets, presumably candy treats for their young human charges. “Eat shit” has never had a more literal meaning.
The mastermind science whiz behind the Purrpetuals, Gemma (Allison Williams) has been secretly working on a new project that will forever change the toy industry. Her sinister-looking, glassy-eyed, four-foot-tall M3GAN — short for Model 3 Generative Android — is designed to “pair” with its child-owner and, through the magic of AI and the internet at the disposal of its bionic microchip, become a best friend, parental figure, and ultimate protector. That last one is of particular importance.
When Gemma’s niece is suddenly orphaned, the toymaster decides it would be a really nifty idea to dump the untested M3GAN on the grief-stricken girl — all because Gemma herself isn’t ready for the responsibilities of guardianship. “I can’t even take care of houseplants,” she moans upon taking custody of her morose niece, Cady (Violet McGraw, careful not to upstage the movie’s silicone-and-steel star).
Without giving away specific plot details, things go awry — but awry in a PG-13 kind of way, meaning M3GAN is lacking in the extravagant gore that typically drenches modern horror films.
The convenient lineup of victims is telegraphed as if hand-delivered by Western Union. See that dog? Not for long. See its distraught owner? Hoo-boy, is she in for a surprise. Oh, and then there’s that abusive bully to whom M3GAN gives a literal earful of a lesson. Horror was much more fun when every victim didn’t deserve what was coming to them.
There are moments in M3GAN in which the themes approach the verge of becoming genuinely thought-provoking. “Will I die?” M3GAN asks of Gemma. The existential question is never answered, but it does call to mind another Artificial Intelligence renowned for its own homicidal, self-preservational tendencies: the dulcet-voiced, murderous HAL-9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And therein lies the problem with M3GAN. It feels cobbled together with random ideas from other films, everything from Terminator and Child’s Play to RoboCop, Short Circuit and The Bad Seed, to even the idiotic 1964 sitcom My Living Doll. M3GAN never truly feels as though it has a personality to call its own.
In these days of smartphones and intellectual refrigerators, we are constantly being reminded by technology doomsayers of the perils of letting AI become a little too “I.” In that regard, M3GAN is a worthy reminder that perhaps the best toys are those that require no electronics. Tinker Toys, anyone?
M3GAN is playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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