REVIEW: ‘M3GAN’ is the Modern (and Much Improved) ‘Child’s Play’

M3GAN is this generation’s version of Child’s Play and is a stronger film than the 1988 cult classic horror film. It’s a boldly declarative statement, but the first major American theatrical release of 2023 is a modern black comedy that should be heralded for its innovation in the genre. This movie has the most absurdly humorous moments from the big screen since Everything Everywhere All At Once, while also being a film that plays into resonating and modern themes through a new lens. And to boot, the character of M3GAN is primed to become a cultural icon for the new year and a face of horror for years to come.

M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone, with the story by Akela Cooper and James Wan, and produced under Blumhouse Productions, follows the story of roboticist Gemma (played by Alison Williams) as she suddenly finds herself in the custody of her niece Cady (played by Violet McGraw) following the death of the latter’s parents. To help remedy a struggling home life situation, Gemma provides her niece with a prototype of her new work project to assist in looking after and providing emotional support for Cady: the Model 3 Generative Android (abbreviated to M3GAN). This of course has dire consequences as the artificial intelligence gains sentience that’s combined with a warped and everchanging moral code.

Audiences will greatly appreciate how much this film is self-aware of its own absurdity. Following the release of M3GAN‘s first trailer, some expressed curiosity about the genre disparity of a standard horror thriller trailer followed by the iconic dance moves of the sentient doll. In what would feel like an unexpected turn from only viewing this trailer, M3GAN leans significantly harder into its comedic elements. Without getting into spoiler-filled specifics, the movie is rife with more musical moments that should receive solid laughs from audiences. The film’s decision to lean more toward a black comedy was the right call from the creative team. Because of this call, the film was able to use the absurdity of the M3GAN as the basis for a cheeky satirization of the capitalistic banality of corporate attempts to appeal to (and manipulate) impressionable children’s emotions. It’s a concept that certainly wouldn’t have played as well if M3GAN was produced as a straight horror-thriller project. And to be simply put, the more comedic iteration will appeal to a broarder audience that has an appreciation for campy films such as the aforementioned Child’s Play and its contemporaries.

The horror genre has leaned heavily into the concept of common childhood tokens as ultimate monsters (namely Annabelle and The Boy in recent memory), but M3GAN should be commended for finally moving the trope in a way that will resonate with modern audiences. While the notion of artificial intelligence gaining evil sentience is relatively antiquated in the year 2023, thematically this film is remarkably modern. M3GAN is successful in characterizing how it depicts the themes of new-age absentee parenting through technology and the impact it has on neutering social relationships. It turns McCraw’s Cady into a tragic figure, both from the overt death of her parents and the subconscious devolution into her inner id through technology’s instant gratification. It should be noted that these themes are in no way subtle in how they’re presented or too deeply explored, though that should be expected in a standard popcorn black comedy flick.

Amie Donald is the film’s MVP for the physical characterization of the M3GAN doll. The young actress, and the training she received from Jed Brophy and Luke Hawker, helped cement the character as an iconic figure in the pantheon of modern horror figures. Donald (with the help of the visual effects departments) helped create a captivating blend of comedic dance numbers and exhilarating chase scenes. With lesser-quality direction and visual effects work, it’d have the potential to be an unmitigated flop that takes audiences out of the movie. Instead, the physical performance of M3GAN successfully leans into the absurdity of the premise while taking itself seriously.

Though this isn’t the perfect version of this movie by any means. M3GAN is hampered the most when the film tries to play as a basic horror film. The first act relies too heavily on the needless jump-scare attempts that have plagued the 21st century of horror films and nearly sets the expectation that M3GAN will follow this unfortunate trend, though thankfully, rudimentary jump-scares are more sparse as the film progresses. In addition, the writing for Allison Williams’ Gemma struggles to find a consistent identity for her character. She shifts intermittently between the standard horror film protagonist and a woefully ill-prepared figure to raise a child. Gemma is saved through Williams’ on-screen chemistry with Violet McCraw, especially in their final conversations with one another.

Coming into 2023, it likely wouldn’t be expected that M3GAN would be on many people’s “best movies of the year” list. However, this year’s first major American theatrical release has all the makings of a surprise success in the horror genre and should be a promising sign for the health of theatrical films. Blumhouse Productions and Universal Pictures have their next major horror franchise in the form of a trendy tween artificial intelligence doll.

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