While James Wan’s Conjuring franchise birthed the pre-eminent “misfit toy” of the 2010s in the form of a possessed doll named Annabelle, his latest creation is a far more sinister one, if only because of her prescience in a world where the connection is limited, and devices are the only true companions we have remaining. For M3GAN, or Model 3 Generative Android, as she’s introduced, Wan both produces under the Blumhouse banner and shares story credit with his Malignant screenwriter Akela Cooper. Together the two have concocted a film that, while far more predictable than Wan’s previous directorial effort, is as mirthfully self-aware as the artificial being it’s about and far more entertaining than its relegation to a January release would have us believe.
M3GAN espouses the same hard-earned wisdom born from the foreseeable consequences that would doom the good intentions of Dr. Frankenstein and John Hammond, among others, but it does so with the acknowledgment that time has left such a story thread hackneyed enough that scathing humor is the only thing that can save it. In that regard, this film’s mad scientist is Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist and designer for a high-end, Seattle-based toy company. Her latest project is the titular doll, a piece of artificial intelligence so ahead of its time that competitors wouldn’t even dare try to replicate its success. Gemma is in over her head, of course, but in proceeding with M3GAN’s construction and eventual rollout, Williams effectively remolds the malice of her presence in the already legendary Get Out into an amusing showcase of capitalistic obliviousness.
Perhaps the only thing that can rival Gemma’s brilliance as an engineer is the utter embarrassment of her attempts to relate to others. For being one of the leading minds behind products designed for kids, her disdain for the generation below her is made all the more apparent after she gains custody of her nine-year-old niece, Cady (Olivia McGraw, in her biggest role since The Haunting of Hill House floored Netflix viewers back in 2018), following the unexpected loss of the young girl’s parents.
It’s here that M3GAN latches itself onto the latest cultural obsession with which it pronounces its foreboding messages a little too apparent. The ‘80s had time travel and killer machines sent from the future, while the ‘90s had realistic technology that could bring dinosaurs back from their fossilized grave. Gemma, as any of today’s most unmotivated and inexperienced parents, would do, places the latest advancement right out front for Cady to see as the grieving daughter becomes the perfect beta test for M3GAN’s capabilities.
Girl and golem are a natural fit, engaging in conversation and playing together upon their “pairing,” which director Gerard Johnstone ensures is about as absurdly off-putting and Avatar-esque as it sounds. As is to be expected, M3GAN’s ability to appeal to Cady’s feelings gradually evolves into a desire to protect her from harm, and once she becomes familiar enough with the subject of death, you can imagine how well things go for those who don’t have the interests of either of them at heart. In fact, we’re forced to imagine it, for a PG-13 rating, indeed, has left us to ruminate over a film in which the killer doll’s most sadistic acts are captured out of frame. However, the MPAA doesn’t provide much of a hindrance to M3GAN’s second- and third-act spree, if only because the film deftly suggests that her real power is far more terrifying than even the most gifted tech moguls would be willing to admit, a manifestation of evil that is only years away from becoming our reality.
More than a few annoyances in Cady’s life are left at the mercy of her new friend, and in relatively un-suspenseful fashion, but the film is elevated by the eerie, not to mention highly memorable, physical performance of Amie Donald, who is complimented by the sweetly sinister vocal stylings of Jenna Davis. M3GAN herself is the closest thing to a star the film has, a four feet tall accomplishment of CGI and animatronic ridiculousness. Cooper’s script casts her as everything from a slasher to a contortionist, and it would be inhuman on our parts not to revel in just how ludicrous it is to see a doll running on all fours one minute and performing Sia’s “Titanium” as a lullaby the next. With Wan’s plans to expand his newest plaything into a franchise, one can only hope that her antics are kicked up to an eleven.
Expectations are sure to abound if Wan’s vision is to come true, especially considering that Cady’s artificial codependency in the face of M3GAN’s intelligence is what gives the film one of its few shreds of originality. Though the question of whether or not we will see McGraw in the role again, she shows nothing less than great promise as Cady lashes out in her companion’s absence, unable to process how her unfathomable loss makes her feel with one distraction to rule them all. Just goes to show you what technology can accomplish if it means that kids can’t live their lives and caregivers don’t have to try. Save for the select moments when it undermines itself by spelling this theme out, M3GAN is also a strong indication that this year’s slate of genre features shall be best enjoyed on the big screen with a sizable audience. And that, at the very least, is an experience we can thank technology for granting us.