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M3GAN Review: Welcome To The Dollhouse

  • An entertaining black comedy with several fantastic set pieces
  • Takes its silly premise seriously, which makes it even more enjoyably ridiculous
  • Doesn't have the surprise factor of Malignant, with no hidden shocks to be discovered.
  • The PG-13 rating means some punches have been pulled when it tries to go full slasher movie

For as long as there's been science fiction, there have been stories about how man-made creations will eventually become more intelligent and powerful than mankind. Narratives about artificial intelligence taking humanity's place at the top of the food chain were already exhausted by the time technological advances caught up with the genre's most fantastical predictions, which now renders most of these tales obsolete. A director making a bold sci-fi allegory about how AI has gone too far now risks looking like an old man yelling at a cloud, rather than offering an imaginative view of a quasi-dystopian future.

Although there are exceptions to this rule, like Alex Garland's thought-provoking "Ex Machina," we have grown so conditioned to having our lives dictated by tech devices that know everything about us that the doom-mongering of the genre rarely registers. We know our phones and tablets are listening to everything we say, and that our web data is being used for shady purposes — merely reminding us of the disturbing advances that have led to them knowing everything about us doesn't exactly satisfy as a work of sci-fi. This might be why the silly thrills of "M3GAN" prove so satisfying; the same hand-wringing concerns about AI are clearly laid out on the surface, but luckily, they're complemented by the simple pleasures of a demonic robot child tormenting everybody in sight. It's hard to roll your eyes at the obviousness of the film's themes when it succeeds as a nuts-and-bolts genre crowd-pleaser, designed to be discovered with a packed audience.

It's not as batty as Malignant

In "M3GAN," Allison Williams stars as Gemma, a roboticist long past her deadline to come up with a new model for her company's best-selling toy (think an AI Furby and you're halfway there) due to unexpected deaths in the family. She gains custody of her young niece Cody (Violet McGraw) and initially struggles to connect with her; due to her line of work, she has lost the wonder of imagination, with the only child-friendly things she owns being collectibles she stubbornly insists must remain in their original packaging. But after Cody sees one of her earliest mechanical models she designed back in college, she returns to an early childhood dream: What if she could build the perfect toy, which could develop an organic connection to whichever kid decided to play with it?

The result is the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short, which is the answer to all of Gemma's prayers. Suddenly, Cody has a more attentive parent to look after her while she commits to working, and more importantly, the prototype attracts the instant attention of her superiors, who insist that M3GAN be fast-tracked into production and launched to the public imminently. The only problem? Cody has become too attached to M3GAN and refuses to go anywhere without her — something reciprocated by her robot companion, who grows increasingly sinister towards Gemma and anybody who dares put her surrogate sister in harm's way.

Viewers have been divided over the film receiving a PG-13 rating from the MPAA, and the fears of some of those that this might be watered down to appeal to a larger audience aren't entirely unwarranted. It may boast the "Malignant" screenwriting duo of James Wan and Akela Cooper, but it tempers the insanity in a way that their earlier collaboration didn't; the kills may still be darkly hilarious, but they've been carefully edited around so the film remains a largely bloodless affair. Whereas that film confounded initial expectations, revealing itself to be an entirely different breed of thriller than the investigative drama it appeared to be on the surface, "M3GAN" is exactly the film that it's advertised as, which sounds strange to list as a flaw, admittedly. But considering the twisted delights that were hidden in their prior effort, which helped it reach that next level of delightful horror insanity, it does feel oddly disappointing to walk out satisfied rather than surprised. It does exactly what it says on the tin, right down to the "children should spend less time on their phones" allegory — a minor shame, considering that it was what wasn't revealed in advance that proved most memorable about "Malignant."

It's self-aware but tries not to show it too much

Rather than fixate on what I wish the film was — a wild R-rated slasher, a direction I hope will be taken in the rumored sequel — the film does need to be celebrated for the one thing it thankfully isn't: an embarrassing feature-length attempt at making a meme-friendly movie. Following the unexpected viral success of the first teaser trailer, which racked up 150 million views within a week of its release last October, M3GAN became an overnight icon due to how she slayed, both literally (so many bodies piling up!) and figuratively (her dancing!). Naturally, I had fears that producers could take the "Snakes on a Plane" route and try too hard to cash in on the viral success long after the film was in the can, inserting quick scenes designed to appease social media users looking for nonsensical moments they could screenshot and post out of context.

It's to the credit of the screenplay and director Gerard Johnstone that the film takes its loopy premise entirely seriously, avoiding any distracting winks at the camera even as laughs are easily mined in the ridiculous moments. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, sequences, where M3GAN breaks into lullaby cover versions of pop hits, would seem designed to create an inescapable TikTok sound, hastily added after a studio exec saw the online reaction to those dance routines in the trailer. Here, they're used to underline one of the many functions a child would find wondrous about such a toy, making them want to keep it in their bedroom even after it's been accused of murder. As with many other scenes, it's funny and likely will make a splash online when inevitably shared on social media. Still, it never feels cynically engineered to achieve viral fame in that way, like Samuel L. Jackson yelling he's had enough of the snakes on his plane.

Johnstone, who previously directed the low-budget horror-comedy "Housebound," skews far closer to comedy than horror with his sophomore effort, but that's not to the film's detriment. Like the "Chucky" sequels, to which the film has already been extensively compared, it has a self-awareness of what the audience wants to see from a child robot killing machine but ensures that mindfulness never rises to the surface. There's no resorting to lazily breaking the fourth wall, or any other embarrassing tropes that plague many contemporary horror comedies. If anything, the only moment that feels distractingly out of place is the dance sequence spotlighted in the trailer, which feels like an unnecessarily long build-up to a violent kill that takes place entirely off-screen. It's safe to assume that, while general audiences may enjoy this popcorn thriller in the way I suspect, horror die-hards will be more divided by the not-so-subtle ways it pulls punches, landing dark gags but never their violent payoffs.

For me, I was in the former camp, enjoying every silly second at the moment even as I was left wanting something far weirder once the initial excitement died down. Hopefully, this isn't the last time we see M3GAN on our screens. It's a fun introduction, but it'll likely leave you hoping for an even more bananas round two.

"M3GAN" hits theaters on Friday, January 6.