Not outwardly terrifying, director Gerard Johnstone’s sci-fi slasher features a lifelike AI doll named M3GAN, programmed to attach itself to a single child. In the case of Akela Cooper and James Wan’s story, M3GAN finds her child soulmate in Cady (Violet McGraw), a young girl recently orphaned by a fatal, parental car accident. The rest of the story plays out with absurdity, a film reliant on knowledge, tech, and habits recognized by 2023 audiences. M3GAN works due to our own reliance on and ability to trust technology we don’t understand, taken to logical ends by the film’s willingness to ham up this story, go for big laughs, and succeed in finding them more often than not.
Allison Williams plays Gemma, a toy designer and aunt to Cady, who gives her niece this untested model. Like most of the film’s other characters, she’s selfish, manipulative, happy to use someone close to her for personal gain. Redeemability exists on the surface for Gemma, Cady, the other toy designers and managers at Funki, Gemma’s company. None of them are particularly “good people,” though Cady is the only one that should be given a pass, even if she ends up displaying some violent tendencies of her own.
Gemma gives Cady her own personal friend, assistant, and mother in M3GAN, who tends to her every need. She protects her from harm, makes sure she washes her hands after going to the bathroom, and spouts random health facts ad nauseam. Gemma seems content pawning off her distressed niece to this doll made of lines of code that—if it’s not immediately obvious—becomes sentient. M3GAN doesn’t mind being telegraphed or overt, pulling audiences on a bloody ride of hilarity.
Seen with a packed theater, the horror comedy grows in stature, ratcheted up by the people sitting to your left and right. I couldn’t help myself, and neither could my fellow moviegoers. People were snorting, cackling, laughing like hyenas at every imminent death; a collective experience was forming. Everyone gave themselves over to the folly of M3GAN, culminating if not the year’s first great horror film, at least the first great theatrical experience of 2023.
Like dolls of cinema’s past, M3GAN has a clear dark side, programmed to protect at any cost. She takes two actors to portray her, Amie Donald and Jenna Davis as M3GAN’s physical and voice counterparts. They combine for an eerie, entertaining performance, dancing and singing their way to laughs and shrieks. Unlike previous iterations of the killer doll trope, Akela Cooper’s script edges towards comedy more than horror. M3GAN isn’t as nightmarish as its predecessors, leaning into the ridiculousness, and commonality, of its AI-focused premise. There’s a levity in the irrationality of M3GAN, an odd excitement to be felt throughout a doll’s rampage.
It marks another win for Blumhouse and Wan, horror staples who continue raking in critical and box-office successes. Together, and separately, they’ve developed a faithful niche in theatrical horror, creating low-budget films that capture audience’s attention. Fans of the genre flock to (most) Blumhouse features for good reason: they’re a hoot.
M3GAN’s self-awareness becomes tiring at a certain point, even if it’s smarter than it has any right to be. If obviously silly, it represents an obsession with cutting-edge tech, the shininess of something new, and making our lives easier, lazier, and less connected. Although this commentary is blatant, the film—with all its insanity—remains highly enjoyable: real good, real fun, real simple cinema.
M3GAN is now in theaters.