Sunday, January 8, 2023

My Little Terminator


Even though it's absolutely clear from all the marketing for M3GAN that the titular doll is a robotic A.I. creation, it's still hard not to go in with thoughts of Chucky and killer dolls in your head. That all quickly evaporates, though, as M3GAN immediately establishes itself as a killer robot film rather than a killer doll one. Yes, this killer robot also happens to be a doll but M3GAN occupies the same space as the likes of The Terminator, Deadly Friend and Demon Seed - tales of technology run amok - rather than the killer doll realm of Child's Play, Dolls, and Annabelle. Honestly, as a movie monster, M3GAN has more in common with the haywire robots of Chopping Mall than with Chucky. 

Think of her as the sassy younger sister to the out of control EVE VIII in 1991's Eve of Destruction

Killer doll movies are all about inanimate objects coming to life. They play on our childhood fears of innocuous toys actually having malevolent souls, committing dark deeds only when no one else is watching. M3GAN, however, belongs to that sci-fi horror sub-genre of technological terrors with M3GAN (the Model 3 Generative Android) being yet another cutting edge creation gone awry. 

After young Cady (Violet McGraw) is orphaned in a car accident, her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) becomes her guardian. Not naturally inclined towards parenting, Gemma's work as a roboticist and product developer at a toy company comes in handy as Gemma introduces Cady to her latest invention, M3GAN, still in the demo phase. Meant to be a companion to children, one that will bond with them, M3GAN quickly fills the emotional void in Cady's life that her aunt, as much as she does genuinely care for Cady, isn't quite equipped to. 

As bent on having a wicked good time with their premise as the makers of M3GAN are, Akela Cooper's screenplay also addresses Gemma's struggle to meet Cady's needs in real terms, acknowledging the anxieties modern parents face in wondering whether their children's interactions with technology are healthy. Earlier generations of time strapped parents struggled with having TV be a babysitter to their kids but the internet age has only exponentially added to the concerns that come with relinquishing large chunks of parenting time over to devices. While even the parents of today's most tech addicted kids don't have to worry about a robotic A.I. tucking their children into bed at night, the underlying dilemma that Gemma deals with in M3GAN still feels relatable  

Director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) adeptly translates the humor and horror of Cooper's screenplay but also plays the drama straight, keeping M3GAN fun but not frivolous. Some reviews have pushed the notion that this is camp or a horror comedy but that's not the case. Yes, it's often funny and yes there is dark humor but it isn't some kind of send up devoid of emotional stakes. We care about both Gemma and Cady and the movie hinges on the question of whether they'll be able to connect sans technology as a go-between. 

As the embodiment of that technology, M3GAN is an instant entry into the evil robot hall of fame. Perfectly conceived, perfectly realized. The look, the attitude, the personality, it's all there. As the makers of The Horror Show, Brainscan, Dr. Giggles and many others will tell you, one of the toughest things to do in horror is to try and launch a new icon. It is something that rarely works out. Given that, it is genuinely impressive how sure footed M3GAN's debut is. Just as there is no doubt that we'll be seeing more of her it also seems certain that we'll be seeing much more of screenwriter Akela Cooper's work. With the last film she penned, 2021's gonzo Malignant, having been an undeserved box office miss even with James Wan directing (I blame Warners, who didn't know what they had and had no clue of how to market it), it's gratifying to see M3GAN 's success. 

The first genre release out of the gate this year, M3GAN bodes well for the genre's 2023 prospects, building on 2022's momentum. As a collaboration between Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions and James Wan's Atomic Monster, it offers proof (if anyone needed it) of what a fruitful partnership the rumored merge between their two production companies would be. Also, following the success of original crowd pleasers from last year like Smile, M3GAN indicates a shift from A24 type elevated horror to a rising appetite for more pop orientated frights. To that end, this living doll could prove to lead the charge to a more playful era for horror. 

As M3GAN would say, "it's insane, right?" 

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