Instantly memed when its trailer hit last year and sporting an eye-popping Rotten Tomatoes score (95 percent at the time of publication), it seems like the only way for Blumhouse’s killer doll flick M3GAN to go is down. How could something so obviously goofy live up to the hype? How could it withstand the weight of grown adults referring to a fake doll (embodied by an actual human) as “mother” (maybe “moth3r”)? I feared going into M3GAN that it would be one of those movies whose trailer is better than the finished product, a one trick robot pony pointed in the direction of cult classic but caught in an uncanny valley. It turns out, I had nothing to fear but M3GAN herself.
I loved this movie. The Gerard Johnstone-directed flick manages not just to breathe life into an overly familiar premise, but it also sharply translates to the screen modern anxieties over the evolution of A.I. and children’s screen time. The full-of-wonder, half-serious tone (bolstered by a string-soaked score) and plot that veers from poignant to horrific reminded me of nothing less than Spielberg-adjacent mid-‘80s fare. Rather than off-putting, M3GAN’s formulaic nature is soothing, like holding an old friend’s hand, which just happens to be made out of rubber and titanium. The Model 3 Generative ANdroid (or M3GAN), a high-end, A.I.-powered doll that Allison Williams’ 21st century toymaker character Gemma develops, is descended from a long line of acronym-touting, steel-willed robots in pop culture, like HAL 9000 (the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer). The movie’s general recipe is something like: Small Wonder cooked in a reduction of Child’s Play over a bed of the Funzo episode of The Simpsons on a plate shaped like Frankenstein’s monster. It’s sprinkled with Gremlins, finished with a drop of Daft Punk, and there’s some 2001: A Space Odyssey on the side for dippin’.
You know you’re in capable hands from the jump, as the movie opens with a parody ad for a robotic pet, a kind of wise-cracking, flatulent Furby that responds to voice prompts. (The robot tells its human, “That’s interesting. You know what else is interesting?” And then it farts.) It’s a product of Funki, the company for which Gemma works. When we meet her, she’s trying to get her latest creation, M3GAN, off the ground, but when the doll’s head explodes during an exhibition for Gemma’s manager, David (Ronny Chieng), M3GAN gets put on ice so that Gemma can focus on making more android animals. The robo-doll is revived, though, after Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law die in a car accident and her niece Cady (the wonderfully sullen Violet McGraw) comes to live with her. Gemma’s not ready to be a mom, but she attempts to have it all with the help of the highly attentive M3GAN, whom she programs not just as a companion but also a teacher bearing the repetitive grunt work that Gemma’s too busy for, like telling Cady to flush the toilet. As she tries out M3GAN on her niece, Gemma is also prepping the robot for the consumer market—the slogan she suggests is “M3GAN: She’s more than just a toy. She’s part of the family.”
That you can see where this is going a mile away takes nothing from the overall enjoyment of the movie. M3GAN the character is as well-programmed for audiences as the toy is for children, due in no small part to Akela Cooper’s consistently hilarious script. “Hey, what’s up?” M3GAN says upon powering up at one point. She breaks out into song seemingly on a whim, and her selections are always relevant to her condition (an a cappella cover of Sia and David Guetta’s “Titanium,” an instrumental piano version of Martika’s “Toy Soldiers”). She’s great at bullshitting—there’s a stray shot of Cady telling M3GAN about her day and the doll responding, “Yeah, uh huh.” She looks hilarious with dried leaves in her tussled hair after surviving an attack from the next door neighbor’s dog. She’s got side eyes and a slick mouth for days.
In a much-memed scene featured in the trailer, M3GAN does an elaborate dance. This comes after she’s already kicked her havoc into high gear, as her bond with Cady intensifies and Gemma expresses anxiety about her invention becoming increasingly unmanageable. The song her dance break is set to is the Skatt Bros’ 1979 disco stomper “Walk the Night,” an overtly gay track whose lyrics include the lines: “He’s got a rod beneath his coat/He’s gonna ram right down your throat/Make your grovel on the floor/Spit up and scream and beg for more.” This section of the song is not played in the movie (it’s mostly just the instrumental bits that are included), but the choice, I think, telegraphs a kind of dog whistle to the gay/allied audiences with a particular craving for camp. If the murderous, Olsen twins-esque doll wasn’t enough to convince them they’d come to the right place, the song choice puts things over the top.
M3GAN carries with it a smirk as knowing as the one carved in rubber on the mad robot’s face. The movie could be generally categorized as a horror comedy, though for much of its running time, it’s heavier on the comedy. It is largely bloodless, thanks to some reshoots done in service of nabbing a PG-13 rating, but the M3GAN character is nonetheless deadly, killing multiple people who threaten her dominance or her bond with Cady. The movie itself rather deftly marries sci-fi with the domestic thriller subgenre, which thrived in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (see: Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Single White Female). Williams is reliably solid as a straight character in a bonkers situation—she’s naturalistic enough to keep things grounded, and her character’s ambivalence about the parental role foisted on her gives the movie an impressive weight to balance out all the gags.
As technology becomes more accessible, it was probably only a matter of time before we got such an overt examination of its threat to the family, and I’m thrilled that it came in the form of M3GAN. “She’s not a solution, she’s just a distraction,” resolves Gemma at one point, late in the film, putting her finger on the greater implications of the narrative she’s found herself in. Indeed, but what a great distraction M3GAN is.