January is not a promising month historically for movies released in cinemas. It's even earned the nickname "dump month" – a time for studios to dump their dud films, which they don't believe will make much of a profit following the blockbusters over the holiday season and Oscar-bait during award season. However, now and then, there's a diamond in the rough.
This diamond goes by the name M3GAN, an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android. Going into this film after watching the trailer and some funny TikTok dances inspired by a little dance number that popped up in the film's trailer, I didn't expect much substance out of a killer-robot-doll horror movie. This isn't a spoiler, as the marketing for the film makes that evident. I wasn't expecting some well fleshed-out ideas about rapidly advancing technology, our increasing self-absorption, corporate overreach, and the dangerous attachments kids can form with this type of technology.
M3GAN Does Camp Horror Just Right
M3GAN is best described as a science-fiction horror comedy with some campy depictions of serious concerns about our increasingly technological future. The film opens with an absurd commercial for "Purrpetual Petz" targeted at children: It begins with a funeral for a real dog, and a consoling parent offers her child a replacement in the form of a toy that looks like a next-generation Furby, only much worse. These toys are the leading technology in children's toys, as they're highly interactive, to the extent of needing to clean up their poo and control them from an iPad. This commercial segues to a car ride, where we're introduced to 8-year-old Cady and her parents, who are going on a ski trip.
Cady has an incredibly annoying Purrpetual Pet of her own, and it's noticeably demanding all of her attention. While this stupid little Furby/Tamagotchi hybrid is farting and making child-like quips as if it's a true companion, her parents exchange words of concern about Cady's level of involvement with the toy gifted by her Aunt Gemma. They mention that Gemma works for the company that produces them, discuss limiting her screen time, and how these toys increasingly demand a child's time. As they're sliding across the icy road, Cady even puts her own safety in danger, unbuckling her seatbelt to rescue her toy pet that has rolled along the floor of the car. Shortly after, they're hit by a car, killing both of Cady's parents, but leaving Cady relatively unscathed.
She's placed in the custody of her Aunt Gemma, per her mother's wishes. Our first introduction to Gemma shows us a conscientious, workaholic young woman working for a prestigious tech company. While she's supposed to improve the design of Furreal Petz to stay ahead of competing companies trying to imitate their product, she has something more ambitious in mind. Already behind on a deadline set by her a-hole boss, which is admittedly a cartoony caricature of tech CEOs, she and her work colleagues have been secretly working on another project – a life-size artificially intelligent doll that would transform both the toy and tech industries forever. When her boss finds out she's neglecting her work duties to work on a passion project of her own, he places more pressure on her and demands that she sidelines her development of this robot which is proving difficult to get to work properly.
Things take a turn when Gemma takes custody of her newly orphaned niece, Cady, a task she's evidently not cut out for. Right off the bat, we see Gemma takes a no-bullshit approach to getting her way and keeping a pristinely maintained house. From abrasively arguing with her neighbor all the time to correcting Cady's placement of a glass of water on her wooden table without a coaster, Gemma is more preoccupied with order and appearances than she is with consoling her grieving niece. She neglects to spend any time with her, treats her like she's an adult who can just take care of herself, and even instructs her not to play with her collectible toys that are displayed in her tech-savvy but otherwise toy-less house. After a psychotherapist visits her home to observe their interactions together and Gemma begrudgingly opens one of her collectible investments to prove she isn't an unfit guardian, she's advised that she needs to make some adjustments for this to be a suitable place for Cady to live.
This film brilliantly depicts self-absorption and preoccupation with career success at the expense of nurturing the next generation. Gemma is a single, childless woman in her 30s trying to make a name for herself in the tech world. She doesn't just want to make mindless predictable toys. She wants to be a technological innovator – a trailblazer. One thing she clearly never wanted to be, however, is a mom. Taking on the responsibility as a legal guardian, she neglects to be there for Cady. She spends all her time working, leaving Cady to entertain herself in a house that’s not a child-friendly entertainment. She tucks her in without any plans to read her a story. She overhears her crying at night, and while she feels terrible, she doesn't go into the room to comfort her.
At one point, she hands Cady an iPad to entertain herself with so she can get work done on the new Furreal Petz prototype she's passed deadline on. Cady responds, "But what about screen time?" to which Gemma looks visibly confused. “Like, how long until I have to turn it off?" Gemma dismissively replies, "Oh, however long you want, I don't care." This one line of dialogue tells us plenty about what type of person Gemma is. She doesn't care about setting boundaries with Cady or caring for her well-being. She only cares about herself. After spending much longer than she promised on her work while Cady was left to her own devices, Cady peeks into her workspace, wanting attention. Cady takes an interest in an old robot that Gemma developed when she was in college. After showing her what it can do, Cady expresses that if she had a toy like that, she doesn't think she'd ever need another toy again, which gives Gemma an ingenious idea.
If Gemma ignores the instructions from her boss to work on this demonic Furby prototype, she can achieve all of her goals at once. She can relieve herself of the burden of fulfilling the role of mother figure to Cady by developing an A.I. doll that acts as a friend, confidant, and even parental figure. Simultaneously, she can please her boss (and her own ambitions) by creating a revolutionary doll fueled by artificial intelligence that will transform the industry forever. After successfully completing the doll, all goes according to plan – at first. Cady is happier than ever, she has someone to talk to and hang out with, and M3GAN even reminds her to wash her hands properly and use coasters, answers all her questions, and educates her about the world.
Gemma's work colleagues begin to become concerned that M3GAN is replacing too many parental duties and that Gemma never spends time with Cady. She reassures them that this is only temporary and that they need to spend as much time together as possible for beta testing since they're paired together. This means Cady is M3GAN's primary user – the person that M3GAN is bound to serve. Gemma gives M3GAN the task of protecting Cady from all mental and physical harm. Foolishly, she fails to install parental controls and guardrails of conduct because of her time constraint. This gives M3GAN a lack of parameters on what's acceptable behavior. To avoid spoiling what specifically this leads M3GAN to do, let's just say it involves protecting Cady at all costs with whatever means necessary.
More Than Just a Child's Play Meets Terminator Movie
I've seen a lot of people comparing this movie to Child's Play as well as Terminator. While I completely understand the allusions to these other films, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film's screenplay, which led to a movie that's more than just surface-level shock value. I still have my share of complaints, however. For example, I wish they had committed to an R rating, as the change to PG-13 seems to have really taken a toll on the film's weight. The film's tone is hilarious, especially when M3GAN suddenly starts serving iconic dance moves and aerial cartwheels while wielding an axe or when she inappropriately starts singing “Bulletproof” by David Guetta in a serious situation. This film's self-aware sense of irony makes it the perfect medium to satirize the ridiculousness of our modern world.
This film brilliantly depicts self-absorption and preoccupation with career success at the expense of nurturing the next generation.
The heart of the film is the valid implications of rapidly advancing technology that we're ill-equipped to deal with and an increasing self-obsession that's leaving us more invested in climbing up the corporate ladder than instilling proper values in future generations. I was impressed by the depiction of Cady by young actress Violet McGraw. She convincingly portrays a grieving orphaned young girl who becomes concerningly attached to her doll, to the point of rage and panic when Gemma threatens to take her away even for short periods of time. Allison Williams portrays Gemma the same way she approaches every character – with that familiar drawn-out millennial drawl that is actually perfect for this character. M3GAN is played by young actress Amie McDonald, who – I don't even understand how – possesses such creative sophistication to carry herself exactly how you would imagine a lifelike A.I. doll would.
The special effects combined with practical effects to create the illusion of a lifelike doll with a mind of its own was achieved seamlessly. While it is a horror film, it may have been scarier and gorier with an R rating. Even a movie theater's surround sound and darkness don't leave you so scared that you're peeking out of the corner of your cardigan. Even so, I would watch M3GAN again and again because the genuine implications of this type of technology are scary enough without cheap jump scares or ominous scores. It's the first horror comedy that has really understood what it was since Jennifer's Body.
While the film deals with heavy topics like mortality, corporations prioritizing profits over consumer safety and privacy, or children forming extremely unhealthy attachments with technology, it keeps the tone of the film light, funny, and enjoyable to watch. Yet, you can still appreciate the gravity of the situation we're heading towards – young people are lost, craving any type of connection, whether genuine or artificial. The sacrifice it takes to bring and raise children into this world isn't properly valued. Instead, we incentivize placing career achievements above all else. Perhaps most chillingly, when this type of technology is inevitably at our fingertips, how will we resist the urge to flirt with our own destruction?
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