M3GAN weaves between camp, horror, comedy, and some decently emotional scenes for something that is zippy, entertaining and lots of chaos. The killer doll has been done before, but this gives it a tech spin that makes it unique. Also, the design of the robot doll is genuinely creepy looking, and the vocal performance is fantastic. The film could have used a bit more splatter for more impact but even with cutting away from the violence it remains effective.
Gemma (Allison Williams) works for a high-tech toy company and is developing a new robotic companion named M3gan (Amie Donald as the body and Jenna Davis as the voice). Things get complicated when Cady (Violet McGraw) moves in with her aunt Gemma after Cady’s parents died in a car accident. To help Cady acclimate to her new environment, and to test out the new high tech doll, Gemma pairs M3gan with Cady. Now M3gan is Cady’s best friend, and their interactions can be used to sell the expensive toy to Gemma’s overbearing boss, David (Ronny Chieng). But Cady is becoming unreasonably attached to M3gan while M3gan is starting to become somewhat “overprotective” of Cady to the point that murder is an option to keep Cady safe.
The opening of the movie is an ad for talking robot bird toys and it’s gleefully absurd with a Furby style toy that eats and then eventually poops it out, a dumb notion that the kids find hilarious. The setup where the parents are bickering while the kid plays with a talking robot bird toy just feels like it’s going to go wrong. The fact that the toys are presented as technologically savvy creations that learn makes the turn by M3gan into homicidal mania seem inevitable. There is a lot about the relationship between Gemma and Cady at the start and how they integrate M3gan into their lives. So much so that it basically saves all the robotic homicide for the second half. M3gan is creepy from the beginning when it’s just a bare bones model hanging on wires, the robot begins screaming and catching on fire. It’s a big warning sign that this thing is demonic, but she continues to work anyway.
M3gan means “Model 3 Generative Android” (kind of a stretch on the acronym but whatever) and, like the Terminator before it, it is a learning computer that adapts. When she’s in a presentation with Cady, she has a heartfelt moment with her which makes Gemma believe M3gan could work. The doll’s look is appropriately unsettling, pushing it into the uncanny valley territory where it is somewhat human but not enough. The body movements provided by Donald convey volumes and there’s some weirdly creepy but funny moments when M3gan before attacking a guy randomly dances. The voicework by Davis is aces, jumping from fun kids’ toy to menace. It’s a performance that takes a team of actors and FX artists to put it together, but the result is great. When the kills finally happen, they are nasty, although if the movie had been R-rated it would have been better. Still a scene where M3gan confronts a bully is memorable as the kid goes from threat to M3gan pulling the kid’s ear off. And there’s a bit involving a neighbour’s dog that is dark. As mean as the dog is, the visual of the neighbour wandering the streets with a food bowl trying to find her dog after M3gan disposed of the dog is sad.
Williams’ Gemma working as a toy designer who has no idea how to interact with kids is cliché but it works well. When Cady first arrives at Gemma’s home, she tells the kid to stay away from her toy collectibles. This backfires when child services shows up so Gemma reluctantly opens one of her pristine in the box toys and then tells Cady that she isn’t playing with it correctly. Williams shows Gemma being in over her head while trying to make a connection with her niece. Since it’s difficult for her to do it personally, she outsources the emotional stuff to a robot. But M3gan was still created by Gemma so, in a way, she is looking after the kid. McGraw as Cady runs gamut of emotions, she’s still and quiet when she first arrives but opens up to M3gan. There’s an emotional bit when Cady tells M3gan she is afraid she’ll forget her parents but M3gan can store it in her memory, and when Cady is disconnected from M3gan she goes crazy. Eventually, the showdown in the finale unexpectedly features Cady in a position of power which makes it awesome. Chieng as Gemma’s boss is downright hilariously dopey and nasty, and he has one of the best face offs with M3gan. The ending to the scene when M3gan chats with David’s assistant about what is going to happen is adequately disturbing.
There’s some good horror stuff in M3gan but also bits of comedy and some speculation about the dangers of smart app unlimited learning. Evil dolls may be an overused concept in horror, but this makes it different enough for a sci-fi tinged spin on a well-worn idea.