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M3GAN Movie Review: AI Grows Insane

M3GAN builds a surprisingly potent story around its titular character, but its toppings are a little bare compared to its base.

This movie made the song “Titanium” funny, creepy, and a little touching all at the same time. That’s already a feat in of itself.

Directed by Gerard Johnstone, M3GAN is what happens when a bunch of genius toy developers who have never watched Terminator, Age of Ultron, 2001 A Space Odyssey, or any evil robot movie ever made decide it is a great idea to create a child android as a companion for children. One such genius is Gemma (Allison Williams), who adopts her niece Cady (Violet McGraw) after her parents died in a car accident. After struggling to adjust to her new life of parenthood, she decides to enlist the help of Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) for short, for Cady’s emotional support. Unfortunately, M3GAN takes her protocol to protect Cady a bit too literally.

Initially, I was rather apprehensive about M3GAN. Not because it looked particularly bad, but rather because was a January movie. January is when families have gone back to their normal lives with a belly full of Christmas pudding, and students have returned to school, desperately wishing for a snow day. All in all it isn’t a particularly active or profitable time, which is why January is when movie studios decide to empty their backlogs, putting out stuff they aren’t confident in or just want to get over with.

Of course, that is only a general trend, and there are always exceptions. Thankfully, M3GAN proves to be one of the exceptions, as it has far more substance than what I usually expect from a January horror movie. In fact, for the first hour or so, I was thouroughly invested, and was considering reevaluating my opinion on January movies.

loud and clear reviews M3GAN 2023 film movie artificial intelligence
(from left) M3GAN and Cady (Violet McGraw) in M3GAN, directed by Gerard Johnstone. (© 2023 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.)

The biggest reason for its success has to be its titular robot. Of course, we’ve had many killer robots in sci fi movies throughout the years to the point where they’ve gotten as familiar as the local laundromat, but what makes M3GAN so effective are two things: her size and her uncanniness. M3GAN was built for children. Therefore, she is also built about the same size. For all the psycho robot characters out there, we haven’t really had one that was only four feet tall. It also calls back more to the possessed killer dolls we’ve seen such as Annabelle or Chucky, but with a robotic twist on them. Thus, M3GAN puts a spin on both scientific and supernatural horror, and manages to stand out.

Then there is also the great use of the uncanny valley. This is where something looks and acts human, but is just inhuman enough to be unsettling, like the numerous horror parody videos on Thomas the Tank Engine. Everything about M3GAN accentuates this. She has a human face but her actual features are a bit crude. Her voice can express multiple levels of emotions, but always carries a synthesized undertone. Even her movements are either too stiff or too fluid. It makes her a seemingly approachable figure, and yet it is very hard to get an actual read on what’s going on behind those blank lenses.

Of course, the movie doesn’t have to rely on M3GAN alone, as its story actually carries itself with some weight. If you have seen enough sci fi movies or horror movies, it is easy to see most of the plot points coming, such as the android going psycho, or artificial intelligence gaining agency. But I was surprised to see just how much restraint the film initially showed. We only meet M3GAN about twenty minutes in, and she doesn’t go full Ultron for over an hour or so.

Instead, all that time is spent slowly building up the emotional conflicts between Gemma, Cady, and M3GAN. Gemma is written to be more than just a suburban Tony Stark; her insensitive parenting due to inexperience clashes with her sympathy and responsibility for Cady and creates quite a complex character to follow. Cady and M3GAN’s bond is also solidly built, and when M3GAN gets more and more extreme, it is done for believable reasons as Cady’s guardian.

It also raises some interesting questions about how much responsibility should guardians shift onto others. Most of us have had that one pet rock or favorite barbie doll we cherished as an imaginary friend. As the years passed, the pet rock joined the many pebbles on the driveway, and the doll was sold off at the latest garage sale. That’s how toys work. But what happens when a toy becomes so effective at emotionally comforting the child that the child refuses to connect with anyone else? The ramifications are shown throughout the movie and provide genuine tension outside of M3GAN brandishing a nail gun.

However, despite M3GAN exceeding my initial expectations, that also ends up being its downfall. The first and second act built up suspense and character very well, nailing a creepy atmosphere, understandable characters, and some relevant themes to ponder. But the climax struggles to cap off that solid foundation in a fully satisfying way. It’s like if you cooked a delicious cake with gorgeous sponge, but then just messily lathered cream on top of it and called it a day. You wouldn’t hate taking a bite, but it is less fulfilling when you don’t have a chocolate figure on top to savor.

M3GAN: Trailer (Universal Pictures)

The issue stems from when the movie transitions into that third arc. This happens after – slight spoilers, but I as I said before, this sort of plot development is pretty predictable – M3GAN embraces more of her inner HAL 9000, and Gemma decides to put her foot down. It is here where we have to wrap up the emotional arcs between Gemma and Cady. However, that resolution feels a bit too abrupt, and I am also not entirely sure what brought it about. At least with Gemma, there is one scene that may explain her emotional change, but I feel it would have felt natural to have more to pace things better.

Then there are some plot threads that just fizzle out or are barely touched on. Now, none of these result in an outright plot hole. It’s moreso that the movie does nothing with them to the point of the ending feeling a bit empty. There is one side plot involving one of the company workers that is introduced once, then is capped off with only one scene in the climax. Some other elements, like the legal, financial, and social ramifications about what happens in the movie, are also pushed aside in the ending. Again, none of that technically needed to be in the film, but it’s like if you take me into a department store and only do some eye shopping. It’s not wrong to do so, but I am going to be wishing for something a bit more substantial.

A final issue I take with the film might be a bit contentious. This movie advertises itself less as a straight horror movie and more of a horror comedy, with a bit of a campy tone. M3GAN’s robot dance in the trailers should have been some indication. However, for the first two thirds, the film actually plays itself fairly straight. There are some funny moments, but most of it is actually pretty dramatic and suspenseful.

In the climax, we get some more over the top moments such as M3GAN trying to become this decade’s bully Maguire dance meme, but they are just that: moments. In fact, they feel so fleeting that I wonder what their purpose was. They feel more like they were put in for random trailer moments (and what do you know, a lot of them were in the trailers). The movie would have felt more consistent in tone if it had played its scenarios straight, and just let the funny element come from the fact that a 4-foot terminator is running around for people’s jugulars.

The thing is, none of these flaws are gamebreaking. As I said, it wouldn’t be an unenjoyable experience taking a bite of an undecorated cake. But it’s stuff that, if fleshed out or tweaked a bit more, could have made the whole product even more satisfying. As it is, when the movie ended, I couldn’t help but say, “wait, that was it?” It felt just short of saying, “and then they lived happily ever after.”

Overall, I am glad I stuck with M3GAN. It is better than what I expected but worse than what it built up to be. I hear there is an uncensored cut floating around, and I would have little problem going back to see how extra bit of R-ratedness changes the movie’s tone. However, I am also unsure whether an extra splattering of blood would make some of the barer parts of the plot more fulfilling. At the very least, it is the best horror movie of the year so far. Think about that. Take your time.

M3GAN is now available to watch globally in theaters.

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