A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own when it stops at nothing to protect a young girl. Digital editor Dan Jensen checks out a new tech thriller that has become a surprise hit worldwide.
ONE COULD BE forgiven for thinking that M3GAN is nothing more than a horror film about a killer robot doll that terrorises people to protect the young girl she’s paired with. The marketing gives that impression, but the film goes way deeper than that in the most entertaining way.
After nine-year-old Cady’s (Violet McGraw) parents are killed in a car accident, she’s taken in by her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams), who works at a robotic toy company. Noticing Cady’s loneliness, Gemma brings home a prototype of a life-size robot, the Model 3 Generative Android — or M3GAN for short. But in a case of artificial intelligence going a few steps too far, M3GAN’s bond with Cady grows to the point where she’ll stop at nothing to protect her, with deadly consequences.
Filmed in New Zealand and directed by the country's own Gerard Johnstone, this film surprised many by debuting on Rotten Tomatoes (the site that aggregates critics’ scores) at 96 per cent — unheard of for a film released in January, particularly a horror film. Although calling M3GAN a horror film is a stretch since it isn’t particularly scary or even that violent. All the nasty stuff is either implied or happens off-screen, the film coming in with a tame M rating.
M3GAN offers more than just being a rip-off of Child’s Play or any other film where a doll comes to life. Here we have a clever social commentary on the over-reliance on technology as a babysitter for children and the way AI can intrude into our lives and become a tool of convenience that leads to dependence. The film explores themes of 21st-century parenting, the psychology of needing companionship and the dangers of technology knowing too much about its users. And it does it well. For what looks on the surface like a cheesy horror film, M3GAN is a lot smarter than it should be.
Producer James Wan has described the film as “Annabelle meets The Terminator”, which is rather accurate. Even if you ignore the messages the film is conveying, it’s still a fun ride. At first, the robot comes across as quite charming and it’s endearing to watch Cady’s depression lift as her friendship with M3GAN grows. The killer android's first victims are all characters who definitely have it coming, but things turn dark when she adds some of the more likeable protagonists to her hit list.
But the dependence Cady develops on her new “friend” delivers some of the more biting commentary, questioning how far is too far when it comes to letting our kids rely on technology for many tasks that fall on the responsibility of parents. The film’s strength is its ability to deliver a fun story while leaving much to think about once the credits have rolled.
While the film itself isn’t scary, the android doll definitely gives some memorably creepy moments. The performance of Amie Donald coupled with some terrific practical effects to bring the robot’s face to life come together to give us a new horror icon, one which is already being discussed for sequels. With Jenna Davis providing the wonderfully menacing digital voice, M3GAN has the potential to become a cinematic anti-hero.
Another surprise is how funny the film can be. There are some moments of genuine dark humour, mostly thanks to the comedic timing of Ronny Chieng as Gemma’s boss, David. And there are several scenes featuring real silliness, but at least the film is aware of what it's doing and even borders the realm of parody at times.
In one scene, after a previous version of the doll has failed, Gemma finds inspiration to build a new version and what should take weeks to accomplish is done within a montage taking no more than a minute. But, hey… why not?
While M3GAN is great fun, it does follow a formula that’s been done before and if you’ve seen Child’s Play or The Terminator, you know how the film is going to end. It doesn’t really reinvent anything or offer anything groundbreaking. Also, the marketing department deserves a slap on the wrist for giving away too much in the trailer. There are many moments devoid of surprises since they’ve already been revealed.
Still, if you’re after 100 minutes of escapism and an introduction to a great new addition to the list of best movie robots of all time, M3GAN is one of the more fun offerings to hit screens right now. Although be warned — you might never look at your Google Home or Amazon Alexa the same way again.
M3GAN is now showing in cinemas across Australia.
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