Written by: James Wan (story), Akela Cooper (screenplay)
Directed by: Gerard Johnstone
Starring: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, and Ronny Chieng
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Don't worry, Cady. I won't let anything harm you. Ever again.”
The immediate nature of social media has forever altered the cult classic timetable. A process that once took years for people to discover and champion overlooked films now takes no time at all: sometimes, it just takes a few months for a movement to foment online and secure a film’s place in the cult canon. Give it enough time, and much-derided February junk will become an unfairly maligned masterpiece by the end of the year. In fact, it seems entirely possible that every film will eventually deserve this status, making me wonder if “cult classics” can really exist anymore when just about every movie finds an audience that will stick up for it.
All of this has been on my mind in the lead-up to M3GAN, the latest example of another 21st century phenomenon: the “cult” object that’s already found its audience before it’s ever released into theaters. Even if you’re not terminally online, you’ve no doubt already encountered the latest collaboration between Akela Cooper and James Wan, whose viral clips and Fango covergirl status (“M3GAN is the moment,” the latest issue insists) have made her a readymade cultural phenomenon before she even graces the big screen. She’s already the next big thing, a horror icon in a landscape that’s still largely crowded with bygone titans elbowing into the spotlight via various reboots and sequels. Maybe her instant popularity reflects some longing for new blood, or maybe it’s just natural that the current generation deserves its own icon instead of only playing with hand-me-downs.
Either way, it’s remarkable to see this much buzz generated, to the point where the quality of the movie itself almost feels like an afterthought. After all, what if M3GAN isn’t any good? Does this even matter in a world where success can be measured in the amount of memes a movie generates? Fortunately, we really don’t have to reckon with this: while it doesn’t reach the delirious heights of Coper and Wan's Malignant, M3GAN is an entertaining techno-horror romp. And, perhaps most importantly, its title character is immediately indelible and everything you want her to be: silly, strange, and vicious in a completely otherworldly way. She’s an instant star, and I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.
But first, there’s the matter of her first outing. When we first meet M3GAN, she’s very much a beta-phase prototype, all wired up in a project development lab and still in need of her lifelike skin exterior. She’s the brainchild of Gemma (Allison Williams), a workaholic looking to craft the next big thing in the realm of toys: an autonomous A.I companion for children that represents a big step up from her company’s line of virtual pets. Unfortunately, her boss David (Ronny Chieng) is skeptical and forces her to scrap the project just before she receives the horrific news that her sister and husband-in-law died in a crash, orphaning their young daughter Cady (Violet McGraw). Per her sister’s wishes, Gemma takes custody of her niece, something she’s completely unequipped to do on any level. When her maternal instincts don’t kick in, she doubles down on finishing the M3GAN project, and it proves to be a smash hit. David’s tune changes quickly, and he quickly enlists an army of investors and marketing execs to get the product out by Christmas. The only problem? Well, you know how these things go.
Don’t let that familiarity fool you though: M3GAN might be the latest entry in the centuries-old line of technophobic horror tales, but it brings a distinct, wry personality to the proceedings. It doesn’t resort to full-blown camp, nor does it act as a parody or satire; rather, it has the slightest whiff of self-awareness that crucially invites the audience to delight in its inevitable gruesome turns. Everyone involved knows you’re here to see M3GAN go homicidally haywire, and they playfully tease the inevitable without skipping straight to the schlock. Director Gerard Johnstone—somehow only just now following up on his 2014 hit Housebound—is an especially sharp match for this impish stretch, where M3GAN’s growing self-awareness works in concert with burgeoning plot developments that eventually erupt into third-act punchlines: Gemma feuding her busybody neighbor and her intrusive dog, David’s disgruntled personal assistant’s hatching a furtive scheme, Cady’s encounter with a snotty boy.
There’s no doubt how any of this is going to end, but M3GAN largely realizes the fun is in toying with the audience. Cooper’s penchant for odd, purposeful choices, which helped to make Malignant so memorable, reemerges here in the form of vaguely satirical commercials, oddball characters (in this case, a bemused deputy tasked with investigating M3GAN’s rampage), demented lullabies, impromptu dance numbers, and a willingness to indulge in bad taste if need be. Johnstone matches the scripts’ energy with some clever staging and some devious editing that produce some uneasy laughter. I never thought I’d be impelled to chuckle when a kid gets the full Pet Sematary roadkill treatment, yet here we are. Then, of course, there’s M3GAN herself, brilliantly realized from concept to execution. Her design hails straight from the uncanny valley: she’s vaguely lifelike but just off enough to register as spooky to the human eye. Amie Donald’s physical performance—which was later augmented with CGI—likewise gives M3GAN just enough of a human presence to be unsettling. Ditto for Jenna Davis’s vocal performance, which channels the eerie, almost-human inflection of HAL-9000 by way of Talky Tina. Taken as a whole, M3GAN dwells in that perfect sweet spot that so often gives rise to horror icons: she’s just strange enough to be unnerving, but she’s also not really all that scary. If you encountered her in real life, you’d obviously want nothing to do with her; on screen, she’s an utter delight.
Of course, nobody else on screen can have that natural reaction, and that’s also a key to the film’s success: everyone plays things relatively straight, heightening M3GAN’s uncanny presence. Williams and McGraw are especially effective in creating the tense dynamic that provides so much of the film’s nervous energy. The duo paints a believable portrait of this kind of relationship, particularly the initial awkwardness that inspires Gemma to finish M3GAN in the first place. Cady’s eventual attachment to her cyborg companion is also appropriately harrowing, and allows the film’s obvious subtext about the perils of screentime to become the full-blown text. Once Gemma begins to realize she’s become a modern Prometheus, her relationship with Cady adds some potent stakes to the proceedings. Despite the absurd nature of having a demented doll as a third wheel, Williams and McGraw sell the hell out of it. In another universe, M3GAN might even take a more cerebral, existential turn as it fully muses upon the ever-growing relationship between parenting and technology.
But we live in this universe, where M3GAN gets to party. Because let’s face it: where’s the fun in crafting such a fun character if you’re not going to turn her loose and give the people what they want? Johnstone does just that during a fairly riotous third act, where M3GAN ditches any pretenses and effectively implores you to take your grief, trauma and other highfalutin horror buzz words and shove them. Wielding an assortment of weapons, she dispenses with some of the film’s more unsavory characters before a final confrontation with Gemma, Cady, and a robotic invocation of Chekhov’s Gun. The payoff delivers not because of the schlocky implications but because the film has fully invested in all of these characters, giving its rock-’em-sock’em climax an unexpected, heartfelt heft. Of course, the PG-13 rating inevitably leads one to wonder if it’d all be even more entertaining if these studio-mandated restraints were lifted, and that’s fair, especially when M3GAN was definitely hatched as R-rated fare before her viral fame convinced Universal to cater to the younger crowd.
It’s obviously a sharp business decision, but I’m guessing the nastier original cut—which Cooper has already said is likely to surface on home video—probably is more fulfilling, if only because the cuts here create an obvious void, sort of like if a ribald joke couldn’t resort to some well-placed profanity for the punchline. Sometimes we like to say horror can be more effective when it allows the audience’s imagination to run wild with suggestions, but let’s face it: splatter movie violence is very fucking cool too, and some additional blood and guts probably won’t make for a jarring experience. If anything, the lack of explicit violence here is jarring because you sense M3GAN would be a true riot if it could go all the way, like the wickedly fun Child’s Play remake (which I hope more folks will come around to).
Instead, you’re left with the nagging feeling that M3GAN never reaches full throttle. It’s strange but not that strange, nasty but not that nasty; far be it from me to insist that all horror needs to be ultraviolent and gory, but this is one instance where that approach would have ladled some gory icing on the cake. Because it must be said: the cake is pretty damn tasty, and it’s a testament to the craftsmanship involved that M3GAN still works quite well without resorting to gratuitous schlock. I’m also never going to thumb my nose at a movie that’s perfectly suited to become sleepover and gateway horror fare for an entire generation. As much as I love to see my generation’s icons, new blood is always welcome, if not downright vital to keep the genre thriving. You could certainly do much worse than M3GAN in this respect, whose iconic status isn’t in question, at least for the moment now that the film is a smash hit. Only time will tell where she ultimately lands in the horror pantheon, but for now, let’s all hail the new queen. I, for one, welcome our new titanium overlord.
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