2023, PG-13, 101 min. Directed by Gerard Johnstone. Voice by Jenna Davis. Starring Allison Williams, Amie Donald, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Jan. 13, 2023
If you spend any time at all online, you’ve likely seen the ads for M3GAN in some form or fashion. The marketing team has been shrewd enough to realize that a movie about a high-tech, AI-programmed killer doll that slays (in the flattering sense and the killer doll sense) adamantly lends itself to tongue-in-cheek posts for the TikTok age, like the title character posting a BeReal, or letting users DM and have conversations with the doll herself. The very design of the titular automaton has also proved fruitful for publicity if we’re to look at the troupe of real-life M3GANs choreographed dancing to Taylor Swift at the film’s premiere. This has been in good fun but in the later stages of the lead-up has become admittedly incessant, and begs the question: Is M3GAN more meme than movie?
Turns out that maybe it can be … both? M3GAN is a hilarious horror-comedy (really big emphasis on the comedy, this movie is not particularly scary) that’s surprisingly sharp-witted about our world of invasive technology, effectively skewering the way devices overwhelm human connection without turning into some Old Man Yells at Cloud diatribe. More specifically, perhaps an accurate definition of what you can expect here is a yassified Chucky for the iPad Kid generation. Yes, it’s very memeable, but don’t let that color your perception too much.
The fact that it works so well can, of course, be chalked up to the established talent assembling the parts. Written by the team behind 2021 cult favorite Malignant, Akela Cooper and mainstream horror mainstay James Wan, and from director Gerard Johnstone of another cult favorite of the 2010s, Housebound, in retrospect M3GAN always seemed poised to be a bit sharper than meets the eye. It never reaches the ludicrous highs of Cooper and Wan’s previous picture, nor do Johnstone and cinematographers Simon Raby and Peter McCaffrey match its visual wit and inventiveness. But maybe the sterile and plain look this carries is appropriate for the cold, dead stare of the title character.
Speaking of which, M3GAN is a fantastic creation. Voiced by Jenna Davis and with a physical performance by Amie Donald, she is terrifically eerie and uncanny to look at; her dead expression is creepy from the beginning, but she begins to look more and more sullen and threatening in her face as the film progresses. The pairing of Davis and Donald brings her to life through straight-faced, robotic line reads and just-ever-so-unnatural body movements, respectively. A scene where she sings "Titanium" by David Guetta and Sia as a lullaby and, yes, her already famous dance had me howling with laughter.
Also great is Allison Williams as M3GAN's creator, Gemma. She plays the role of obsessive, workaholic, aggrieved, adoptive mother to her newly orphaned niece, Cady (McGraw), with such an astute sense of underlying contempt you start to wonder who the real villain here is. One of them may be the CEO of the state-of-the-art toy company she works at, David (Chieng), a scene-stealer as a clueless, opportunistic corporate shill whose angry-boss persona is so exaggerated and damn near overplayed that it actually works. That kind of encapsulates the entire film in a lot of ways – it’s clearly very wise to how silly and campy it is and is able to employ that tone without becoming overly self-conscious.
Will this film stand the test of time? It’s doubtful, but it’s some great popcorn fun for the start of the new year and plays excellently with a crowd. It’s a crowded subgenre but among all of its haunted/psycho-killer doll forebears and contemporaries, M3GAN is still brisk, fresh, and delightfully compelling.