M3GAN review by Mark Walters – the robot doll story’s commentary on tech obsession in the real horror

M3GAN review by Mark Walters – the robot doll story’s commentary on tech obsession in the real horror

The new horror film M3GAN comes from the mind of James Wan, one of the minds behind franchises like SAW and INSIDIOUS, not to mention THE CONJURING and ANNABELLE… safe to say the guy knows what he’s doing. M3GAN tells the story of a robotic doll companion, designed to be a protective and emotional surrogate for kids in need. Allison Williams plays Gemma, who designed M3GAN while working for a toy company primarily known for silly robot pets meant to be a distraction for kids, but most have become just an annoyance for the parents. Gemma’s boss isn’t interested in M3GAN, he wants her to focus on upgrading the robot pets to compete with other similar designs hitting the market. Her niece Cady (Violet McGraw) loses her parents in a tragic car accident, and now Gemma finds herself becoming her guardian rather suddenly, and realizing she is completely ill-equipped to do so. Seeing an opportunity to pursue her passion project, Gemma decides to complete M3GAN to give Cady someone to spend time with.

At first the relationship between Cady and her robotic companion seems like a good thing with promise. Cady finds a way out of her depression over the loss of her parents, and it really seems like M3GAN may be an incredible breakthrough. Even Gemma’s boss see the potential in making M3GAN a primary focus for their company, which could also mean a big career boost for Gemma. But M3GAN begins to exhibit some rather disturbing behavior, at first seeming like it’s done for the purposes of protecting Cady, though things start to go too far, and Gemma before to wonder if she’s actually created a monster.

While the movie is very much sold as a horror film, there are some not-so-subtle moments throughout showing how human obsession with technology can be unhealthy and downright dangerous. Gemma is constantly checking her phone and working on computers instead of trying to take care of Cady like a surrogate mother. Cady, at first, is also attached to her iPad, rather to talking and expressing her feelings. Their relationship suffers as a result of this, and while Gemma’s invention of M3GAN is revolutionary and inspiring, it’s yet another way for her to give Cady an electronic distraction to avoid spending quality time with her. And there’s a sadness that comes from that leaving us to wonder, if both of them would just disconnect from technology for a bit, could they maybe find a meaningful connection as human beings. This is a running theme in the movie, even the concept of mass-producing M3GAN companions seems like a big mistake, as it’s just another way for parents to not interact with their kids. To me, that subtext is the real horror in this film, and probably could have been explored even further. But the movie knows what it’s meant to sell, which was a robot gone bad, and it succeeds in that regard.

The first half of M3GAN is a bit slow, and at one point it seems like it’s really taking its time getting to the robotic title character. But once she arrives, it does a lot of things right. There’s a fine balance in making M3GAN sort of cute and endearing, while also easily disturbing and cold. A simple look from her can be terrifying, and her voice (provided by Jenna Davis) is perfectly adorable at times and terrifying at others. There’s a few moments where I wish they had given more thought to her “weight” as an object, like in one scene where an annoying boy literally picks her up like a hollow doll… I really wish he had to struggle picking her up, selling the idea of her being more solid and heavy, like… you know, a robot. They also never give a definitive reason for M3GAN is “go bad”, except for the possible attack by a dog that is very aggressive on her. Usually in these kinds of stories, there’s a more defined catalyst of why the machine alters its personality, but here I guess we’re meant to think her internal AI just got tired of being subservient.

It also suffers a bit from having pretty unlikable characters, and that’s across the board. Gemma’s boss is a screaming tyrant who only cares about money, her neighbor with the angry dog is an inconsiderate annoyance, and there’s a child services woman who shows up to check on Cady that is (of course) played as an overly judgemental presence. But even Gemma is kind of a lame persona, a tech-obsessed woman who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships, even with kids… despite building this rather amazing machine, the purpose of which is to protect and help kids. And yes, even Cady is shown to be a temperamental and sometimes just bratty little girl who probably needs a good therapist. The performances are good, I just wish we could have had characters that were more pleasant and worth cheering for. Everyone in the film is kind of gloomy and sad, making M3GAN almost cheery by comparison.

The filmmakers made the decision to switch the movie from an R-rating to PG-13 (supposedly an R-rated cut existed), and because of that, some of the violence is toned down or not shown. At times this is effective as there’s nothing more disturbing than what you can imagine happening off-screen, but at other times it seems like we’re missing the payoff. There are a few characters in particular that (as a horror fan) I really wanted to see get their comeuppance, and the PG-13 rating made it really quick and unsatisfying. The best moments of the film come in the final act, which involves a big showdown with M3GAN, and it’s here where the title character becomes really scary. I imagine audiences will enjoy the end result, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t seen the last of this character – the ending sort of sets up a sequel perfectly. I just hope if they revisit the idea, they get a little more bold with it. M3GAN is a movie that could have been an instant horror classic rivaling those CHUCKY films and other similar fare. As it is, it’s a fun January entry that’s exactly what you might expect. Some great moments and a cool idea that never really goes beyond its own potential.

M3GAN opens January 6, 2023

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started Bigfanboy.com, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and Bigfanboy.com regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.