The horror genre is filled with killer dolls and robots from H.A.L. 9000 to Annabelle and a wide uncanny valley in between. Thanks to the new horror comedy from Blumhouse and Universal Pictures, there’s a new artificial killer on the scene and she’s ready to rumble. M3GAN is an eerily lifelike android designed to pair with a child and become his or her primary companion. With superhuman durability and access to the entire internet in the blink of her pinprick eyes, M3GAN will do anything to protect her favorite child no matter who tries to get in her way. But behind the calculating smile and those killer dance moves lies a nuanced story about human connection and our dependence on technology. Part Chucky, part Terminator, part Orphan (with a little Aliens thrown in for good measure) M3GAN is a terrifying adventure in parenting and a cautionary tale about technology run amok.
Cady (Violet McGraw) is an only child excited for a family ski trip with her parents. When a devastating car crash leaves her orphaned, she goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics expert more interested in designing toys than playing with them. Not knowing the first thing about how to talk to children, Gemma seizes an opportunity to test out her new invention M3GAN, a synthetic child that she can use to outsource some of her caregiving responsibilities. Designed with the ability to learn exponentially and absolutely no parental controls, M3GAN soon begins to develop a personality of her own. She’s deathly serious about caring for her primary child and horrible “accidents” await anyone who tries to intervene. When Cady begins to take on some of M3GAN’s more disturbing traits, Gemma realizes she’s created a monster she can’t control.
With piercing blue eyes and a syrupy sweet voice, M3GAN is a new iconic villain for the ages. This child-like creature is brought to life in a star-making physical performance from twelve year old actress Amie Donald. The New Zealand dancer and stunt performer captures a perfect blend of robotic movement with just enough humanity to make us ALMOST forget that M3GAN isn’t a real child. The dance sequence that set the internet on fire is just the tip of the iceberg and the monster that emerges when M3GAN’s gloves finally come off is every parent’s nightmare fuel. Jenna Davis provides M3GAN’s voice with a cheerily disconnected tone that always seems to be hiding a hint of menace. The entire film rests on the shoulders of these two young women and they combine their talents to deliver a knockout performance likely to become the new face of horror.
The film’s human performances work as well, though the dialogue is occasionally oversimplified and cheesy. Williams and McGraw are the emotional core of the film and their attempts to grieve for the family they lost while trying to establish their own relationship keeps the film from veering too far off the rails. Ronny Chieng is having a blast as Gemma’s dopey boss David, storming through meetings oblivious to how his management style is ruining the company. However, it’s the supporting actors who really make the film sing, from an executive sobbing in a toy demonstration, a teacher who can’t help cursing at M3GAN’s appearance, and a police officer determined to make every second of screen-time count, the film is a lush tapestry of black humor that keeps the tone light while the plot dives into dark territory.
Hiding within this fun horror comedy is a serious exploration of the emotional ties that bind us together. Commenting on humanity’s ever-growing reliance on technology, M3GAN feels especially timely after three years of Covid isolation in which we were all forced to redefine how we interact with the world. An all-encompassing toy, M3GAN is a thinly veiled allegory for YouTube and the devices we use to distract our kids. The film’s ultimate message is that parenting is hard. We are bound to mess it up, but the most important thing we can do is show up for our kids, flaws and all. In fact it’s the messiness that makes us human and by outsourcing all of our struggles to technology, we’re robbing ourselves of important opportunities for perseverance and growth.
As a Blumhouse title, it’s perhaps not surprising that M3GAN carries a PG-13 rating. While this works for a story about an orphaned child, the film could definitely benefit from a little more gore. Though there are plenty of shocking deaths almost all of the violence occurs off-screen and director Gerard Johnstone pulls his punches a bit when dealing with these crimes. The film is still a blast, but M3GAN is such a cool villain that it’s tempting to want to see her cause more chaos. A third act sequence seems poised to provide a blood-soaked massacre, unfortunately M3GAN walks away to a more controlled location. That’s not to say the film’s climax isn’t fun. Johnstone knows what he’s doing and wrings every bit of action he can out of the PG-13 limitation while pulling off impressive nods to some of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time. Fans of the horror genre meet new villains all the time, but every once in a while a particular monster emerges from the pack. M3GAN is that villain. Both wildly outlandish and frighteningly familiar, she will likely have parents double checking the settings on their kids’ iPads for the foreseeable future. The killer toy may be the film’s biggest draw, but she’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast and a surprisingly emotional story that strikes a near perfect balance of humor, horror, and heart. Johnstone and Blumhouse definitely understood the assignment and M3GAN more than lives up to her programming.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.