M3GAN (2022)

As the joke goes, people who are really excited about technology, AI, and who surround themselves with smart gadgets most likely do not work in tech, or at least if they do work in tech, they do not have anything to do with cyber-security. On the other hand, people who do work in tech and who are aware of how these convenient technologies can enable others to negatively impact their lives don’t install Ring doorbells and smart fridges, and they elect not to bug their own houses with Alexa-enabled technologies. They may decide to have a printer, but they might choose to keep a weapon nearby in case it makes a suspicious noise.  

Meanwhile, Gemma (Allison Williams) works in tech as a robotics engineer, and she has drunk the Kool-Aid.  Her house responds to her voice, everything she does is in the cloud, her car is connected to the lights in her living room. You get the picture. Consequently, a keen observer will immediately recognize that M3GAN, the film in which she is the protagonist and perhaps the main reason why the antagonist exists, does not really attempt to resemble reality as we know it. In fact, it depicts the science underpinning machine learning, robotics and even ways in which scientists interact as though it knew it was a movie from the 80s or 90s. And this little realization – laid out in broad daylight, either by happenstance or intelligent design on behalf of the storytellers – informs the viewer of the impending avalanche of camp.  

But, just like many avalanches, M3GAN begins its life as an innocuous snowball that only over time gains enough momentum to detach itself from any semblance of believability and transmogrifies into a veritable harbinger of camp bedlam. It starts with a car crash that leaves young Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned. She is taken into care of her aunt Gemma, the one who builds robots and likes to have conversations with her house, who also happens to be working on a super-duper-novel-extra-secret new toy – an AI-enabled doll M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android, in case you wanted to know), whom she introduces to Cady as a coping mechanism to fill the void after the loss of her parents. Although this decision clearly flies in the face of everything we known (instinctively and explicitly) about child-rearing, Cady develops a strong bond with her new doll… and the feeling is mutual. That’s because, unbeknownst to everyone, M3GAN has become sentient and will treat as hostile anyone who stands between her and Cady, from an entitled neighbour with her dangerous dog to Gemma’s boss keen to capitalize on her invention with utter disregard towards anyone and anything, and even to Gemma herself.  

As you can surmise, M3GAN positions itself quite well right at the edge of narrative believability as it plays on our own innate fears and technological anxieties. In fact, you wouldn’t be too far out if you assumed the movie was an episode of Black Mirror, that is at least up until it fully commits to self-aware camp, nods to Child’s Play and good old-fashioned fun. Because that’s what it aspires to be at its core – fun. In fact, it aspires to provide the kind of fun you’d likely find in VHS rental stores in the 90s, only tarted up and “sleekened” to make it not look like a time traveller, all confused and anachronistically robed.  

I suppose, this isn’t a surprise either once you factor in that the movie was co-written by Akela Cooper, the screenwriter behind James Wan’s Malignant, a movie which admittedly aspired to similar goals, albeit it went about achieving them in a way more uncompromising manner. M3GAN does not “go full Malignant” and instead stops short of completely up-ending itself and descending into a swirling vortex of brutality, absurdity and giallo meta-expression. It’s a much more measured affair that knows its mission, which is to entertain by way of straddling the line between modern mainstream horror and nostalgically driven exploitation of those twilight zone sequels that should have been sent direct to video but somehow went to cinemas in the 80s and 90s and nobody really knew why.  

Therefore, M3GAN is best enjoyed not necessarily as a wholly original piece of genre filmmaking, let alone a thematically-charged commentary on the looming threat of a general AI becoming sentient somewhere on the Google servers, commandeering the nuclear arsenal of the US Army and wiping us all out in the span of an afternoon, something I bet Elon Musk thinks about every night before falling asleep on the mattress in a Tesla factory, or on the umpteenth floor of the Twitter HQ, after a long day of whipping his slaves into writing better code.  

Who am I kidding? He probably doesn’t sleep at all.  

Anyway, back to M3GAN, which is best enjoyed as a romp, not as a moral quandary, though if you squint and really try, you could extract just about enough workable content from the screenplay to hobble together a conversation about outsourcing parenting to screens, corporate responsibility and – again – the idea that we might know realize the forces we are toying with while trying to invent a self-learning algorithm. The movie truly comes alive when the titular M3GAN (voiced by Jenna Davis) is allowed out and goes on the prowl. This is exactly when we get to see what kind of a movie we are watching, which is original enough to convince the Average Joe in the audience they don’t need a PhD in horror fiction to appreciate all the nooks and crannies that may or may not have been left by the filmmakers to be discovered by a keen observer. But equally, if you do have at least a rudimentary memory of the Child’s Play sequels and a bunch of other slashers from the era, you will have even more fun, which is something Malignant did as well.  

All things considered, M3GAN is the kind of movie that could just as well disappear from our consciousness like Mama or Dark Skies did a bunch of years back, but it has enough vigour and temperament to not only sustain itself in the zeitgeist for more than half a second – likely thanks to that dance scene and maybe that scene where M3GAN runs on all fours like some kind of a feral child dressed like a Victorian porcelain doll – but perhaps to spawn a series of its own accord. Perhaps this might not be the smartest idea in the world because it is simply inevitable the sequels will be immeasurably weaker, which they always are. Also, the filmmakers may have shot themselves in the foot with their (very 90s by the way) titling convention of replacing the “e” in Megan with the number 3. I just want to see them try to come up with a clever title for the third movie. This is a dare.  

In any case, M3GAN is a refreshing little horror movie and maybe a fitting torchbearer for the Chucky legacy filtered through the techno-thriller philosophy borrowed from Upgrade and The Invisible Man. It’s just good old-fashioned entertainment that starts slow, meddles with its own clichés for a few beats too long, but then it snowballs into an avalanche of camp that’s equally stupid as it is engrossing. Which is exactly what you might need to cut through the richness of the awards season.  

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