This January horror movie is surprisingly competent
Jason Blum and James Wan have dominated the horror genre for the past decade. Thus, to see them team up presages an intriguing film to come. However, when that film is placed in an early January spot, usually seen as a “Hollywood dumping ground,” doubts can begin to appear.
M3GAN (2023) is the story of a life-like robot doll named M3GAN (Amie Donald, Jenna Davis – voice) invented as a toy by Gemma (Allison Williams). At risk of having her project shut-down by her cost-saving boss (Ronny Chieng), Gemma has M3GAN paired with her recently orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw). However, M3GAN’s AI seems to become a bit too autonomous and begins to pose a physical threat to those around her.
The killer-doll concept has been done to death (no pun intended), with the most famous examples being Child’s Play (1988) and Annabelle (2014), the latter also produced by Wan. However, when a worn-out concept is executed competently, it can prove enjoyable enough. M3GAN is not directed by Wan, he has a story and producing credit, it is helmed tongue-in-cheek style by Gerard Johnstone, who threads a fine needle between camp and horror. It is by infusing comedy and self-awareness in M3GAN that Johnstone is able to make the overused concept intriguing. This comes at the expense of the horror at times, having it come from predictable and surprisingly rare jump scares instead. M3GAN was originally filmed for a rated-R audience, but was cut down to PG-13 for release to a wider audience, and one can see the toned down violence was sloppily cut around, robbing the film of the gore that would have painted a layer of actual dread and horror.
What was most unexpected with M3GAN is the rather timely commentary it has on the relationship of technology and children. Parents have been struggling to balance the time children have with their screens, and M3GAN dives into this, sometimes a bit too bluntly, by showing how quickly a dependency and addiction can form to a limitless device. McGraw plays scenes, when she is deprived of the humanoid robot, with an intensity that may appear exaggerated to childless viewers, but will be only too real for parents. It is in these moments, when McGraw is interacting with the competent Williams, that M3GAN is at its most intriguing.
In the end, M3GAN is an unoriginal yet entertaining new horror film. Johnstone does well not to take the concept too seriously and as a result makes the film much more watchable. The horror elements might be weakest in the film, but the rather poignant tech commentary is enough to make you leave the theater pondering your relationship to your phone.