Producers: Jason Blum, James Wan, Michael Clear and Couper Samuelson Director: Gerard Johnstone Screenplay: Akela Cooper Cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps, Stephane Garneau-Monten, Lori Dungey, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Amy Usherwood and Jack Cassidy Distributor: Universal Pictures
For two-thirds of its running-time “M3GAN”—an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android, by the way—is an amusingly creepy example of the ever-popular demon doll genre, with a nice if underdeveloped satirical edge. But the last third deteriorates into dreary mayhem, unimaginatively delivered.
One can easily detect the DNA of numerous movies at work here, from classy fare like “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Ex Machina” to crude slasher stuff like the “Chucky” franchise or—to mention a nearly forgotten Wes Craven effort from 1986 that comes closer than most, “Deadly Friend,” even if the robot monster there isn’t a doll but a real girl. But Akela Cooper has added some elements to the mix that at first give the movie some comic fizz.
The first is a jab at the toy industry, in this case the Funki Company, and its best-selling PurRpetual Pet, a sort of ultra-interactive Furby that can poop as well as talk. The firm’s volcanic boss David (Ronny Chieng, explosively overwrought) is pressuring his chief robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams) to come up with a cheaper model to counter the less expensive copies flooding the market, but she’s instead been secretly siphoning off some of the research budget to fund her passion project M3GAN, a weirdly lifelike doll that will bond by touch with a specific child, programmed to use her vast store of knowledge to become not only the owner’s best friend but teacher and general babysitter. The very idea of such a contraption not only mocks the toy and electronic industry’s search for profitable products that will keep kids constantly entranced (and encourage their desire for more), but parents’ desire to transfer child-rearing responsibilities from themselves to mechanical surrogates without much concern for the consequences.
David is initially furious that Gemma and her colleagues Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez) are wasting company resources on the project, which fails miserably when they’re forced to introduce an unfinished prototype to him. But against his orders they persist, eventually coming up with a model that knocks his socks off when he sees it/her (played by Amie Donald, with a digitized face and a voice provided by Jenna Davis) interacting with Gemma’s little niece Cady (Violet McGraw).
Cady has recently been orphaned, her parents having been killed in a bizarre accident, struck head-on by a snow plow when, squabbling, they stopped their rental car in the middle of a road during a blizzard (a scene that might leave some viewers queasy, given Jeremy Renner’s recent injury). Cady, playing with her PurRpetual Pet in the back seat, was bruised but survived, and Gemma has become her guardian, though she’s one of those self-absorbed “bachelor parent” types unprepared to raise a child, as the social worker (Amy Usherwood) mandated to check on them infers from her visits.
When Gemma brings Cady to work with her, it’s the amazing immediate rapport between the girl and the improved M3GAN that convinces David to make the development of the project a priority. Gemma is persuaded to take the prototype home so that Cady can cement the bond–in effect a continuation of the testing process. But of course the relationship deepens on both sides to a degree that leads the doll to become Cady’s super-protector, and as the robot’s independence increases it/she uses powers in more and more aggressive ways. Whether it’s the annoying next-door neighbor (Lori Dungey) and her troublesome dog or the bully (Jack Cassidy) who torments Cady at a school fair, M3GAN takes charge, and they suffer fates that escalate in violence. It’s not long before some of the the folks back at Funki, where a public unveiling of the company’s new star is imminent, suffer severe consequences as well, including a nervous gofer named Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten) who’s been squirreling away data files about M3GAN’s technology, presumably for sale to other companies, although in the end little is made of that subplot. But naturally the focus finally comes back to Gemma and Cady, who must deal with the doll’s now clearly maniacal proclivities.
“M3GAN” starts out more smartly than most of these mad-science-goes-berserk movies, but as the story progresses the cleverness recedes and the horror clichés accumulate. What began as potentially sly satire about the toy business and absent parenting is replaced by snarky remarks from the doll that are less grating than Chucky’s, especially as Davis delivers them, in a tone more neutral than Brad Dourif’s wink-wink style. (Actually, at the press screening M3GAN’s funniest lines came before the picture began: in remarks periodically inserted into a publicity card on the screen it/she advised viewers with increasing severity how to behave while watching the movie. It would be wise of Universal to include the bit with public showings, too.) But though there’s an attempt to include some witty visual touches in the later carnage, only in the scene involving the bully do they really work.
By the standards of the genre, “M3GAN” is adequate in most respects. Gerard Johnstone’s direction is okay, and Jeff McEvoy’s editing is fairly crisp. Kim Sinclair’s production design is a bit chintzy in the Funki scenes, but overall acceptable, and the visual effects team supervised by Melissa Brockman have managed to make the title character a nicely surrealistic mix of the real and the unreal. Simon Raby’s cinematography is decent, and Anthony Willis’ score does its job. And though Williams is curiously pallid as the misguided Frankenstein stand-in, young McGraw does surprisingly well in a part whose emotional range would test an adult. The rest of the cast tends toward exaggeration, but in an over-the-top movie like this, one can hardly complain.
Compared to the “Chucky” movies and their like, “M3GAN” is actually sophisticated, at least at the start. But it fails to maintain its early promise through to the end.