Of Creepy Things to Come: Sci-Fi Thriller M3GAN is a frightening warning

An unnerving, technologically sound alarm about the dangers of adaptive AI and how it is quickly replacing human connections—with potentially disastrous results.

10 mins read

The January movie landscape (often referred to as “the dumping ground”) is typically not synonymous with intelligence and discernment, particularly amongst the usual crop of horror pictures that kick off each new year. Yet those qualities are exactly the drivers of the cautionary new sci-fi thriller M3GAN, a very well written, technologically sound alarm about the dangers of adaptive AI and how it is quickly replacing human connections, here with disastrous results. While the trailers for M3GAN may suggest a doll on a killing spree and healthy doses of camp, making the film an instant TikTok cult sensation, the film itself is a thoughtful inquiry into the dangers of our increasing reliance on technology in child-raising.

The past year has seen two very good films from screenplays that would easily make equally compelling reads: Tár, which has dialogue so good it offers literate, socially insightful observations on music theory and history, cult of personality, corrupting power and cancel culture; and now M3GAN, which courtesy of writer Akela Cooper is substantive in its tech and philosophical considerations of playing God with artificial intelligence and its increasing influence in our lives.

Not that the subject would be anything new to an infamous rogue supercomputer named HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey. Flash forward to 1984 and a little known filmmaker named James Cameron issued a similar warning of things to come in his crafty, influential landmark The Terminator, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger meme-worthy (“I’ll be back”) before there ever was such a thing, but also had something potent on its mind about the future of the world–one dominated by virtually indestructible cyborgs developed by humans as war machines that inadvertently became unstoppable executioners of their makers.

A decade and change later the Wachowskis posited a similar shout into the void in The Matrix, which found the human race enslaved in a hyper-realistic computer grid, controlled by all powerful computers. And in 2013, as Joaquin Phoenix fell truly, madly, deeply in love with his computer (perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s voice had something to do with it) in Spike Jonze’s unlikely romance Her, technology was bent on storming our emotions and breaking our hearts.

While in past eras such pictures perhaps felt firmly science fiction or fantastical “what if?” scenarios out of the realm of tangible probability, here we are in 2023 with easily accessible AI so sophisticated its algorithms can predict our every moves, talk to us in our homes, drive our cars, write our reviews (not those of this critic, mind you), deep fake us into Hollywood blockbusters, become our sex partners and “teach us life skills.” Sony has even gotten in on the act, offering a robotic puppy “companion.”

The rabbit hole goes deeper with a thriving industry of “humanoid robots” that “can engage with people and get the desired reaction from them because customers are put at ease and prefer to deal with automata that reflect them in some way.” While that may sound like the next frontier, it is verbatim ad copy from a currently on-the-market, synthetic confidant.

Clearly, we have failed to heed sci-fi cinema’s warnings, though you can be sure that the makers of M3GAN, about a super sophisticated android run amok, certainly did. Brainy, plausible and scary, it is a film less Chucky and more Cameron, a lean, mean and believable techno-thriller on slow burn until its sharp, frequently shocking second half.

Directed by Gerard Johnstone from Cooper’s screenplay, which came from a story collaboration between the writer and prolific genre filmmaker James Wan (Cooper also penned Wan’s 2021 Giallo-inspired outing Malignant), M3GAN is far better than it has a right or need to be. Picture opens with a snowy mountain car crash that leaves nine-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw, a very good child actress) orphaned. Enter aunt and reluctant guardian Gemma (Allison Williams, effective), whose sister and brother-in-law have perished in the wreck.

Brilliant roboticist Gemma works for a cutting edge toy company, a market leader in ultra-sophisticated android pets. Charged with developing a V2 popular pet robot and behind schedule to the dismay of her tech bro boss (Ronnie Chieng), Gemma devotes her energies to a secret passion project—a potentially game-changing android named M3gan (“Model 3 Generative ANdroid”), a remarkably realistic, adolescent-sized doll created to be a child’s favorite plaything. M3gan’s experimental prototype, while lacking in quality control and formal approval, gets a real-life test drive when she brings the doll home as a companion for depressed young Cady.

While M3gan may have been created to ultimately serve as a toy diversion, her sophisticated programming allows her to learn and reason, and her immediate bond with Cady becomes rock solid from both directions. While the android serves as academic tutor and playmate, she’s also been designed to keenly interpret and respond to Cady’s emotions, as well as protect her, at all costs, from any perceived harm. You can see where this is going.

Potential harm quickly follows from the invasive dog next door and its distressed owner (Lori Dungey), a sadistic pre-teen bully (Jack Cassidy) and a handful of Gemma’s underhanded colleagues. Undoubtedly many lured to the picture by its ad campaign are showing up for such visceral thrills, which really give Child’s Play a run for its money (although M3GAN, while tense and often violent, is firmly rated PG-13).

Despite its effective horror sequences, what is most memorable about M3GAN is its potent message about the dangers of our increasing emotional dependence on technology. Late in the picture when M3gan and Cady must be separated, the child faces a second and painful loss to which the film gives serious consideration. Bolstering this theme is a wary social services worker (Amy Usherwood) observing the dilemma and a knockout scene where an important investor product demo takes an unexpected turn both poignant and terrifying.

The picture’s climax requires that M3gan, an intriguing “character” in her own right, turn marauding angel of destruction and deliver upon the ad campaign’s promise of chills, and while modestly scaled (the film was made for $12m) there is fun to be had in the creation’s inspired dance moves and clever, diabolical control in dispatching any perceived threat, including the corporate baddies ready to launch her to the world.

Often mesmerizing and frequently shivery, M3gan herself is quite the invention and a real piece of work, an amalgam of visual effects and puppet work (used exclusively in close-ups) seamlessly integrated with young dancer Amie Donald (and voiced by actress Jenna Davis), who did much of the heavy lifting—bop choreography, running on all fours and a host of stunts—giving M3gan an agile, believable physicality.

The tense final confrontation between creator, child and android owes a heavy debt to Cameron’s 1984 classic, M3Gan a marvel of unstoppable titanium (and in fact warbles a soothing, a capella rendition of the David Guetta/Sia dance hit Titanium), circuitry and, amusingly, attitude. When Gemma confronts her brainchild with suspicions of murder, the precocious (young) robot replies, “Big whoop.” Funny. M3gan also offers a smart assessment of Gemma’s own failure, in a rush to finalize her design, to correctly parent her. Such exchanges are the mark of high altitude, observant writing.

M3GAN is the first good movie of 2023. Firmly rooted in science and tech and not content to merely rely on horror tropes, it has something to say about who is cut out to be a parent, all-consuming AI and our increasingly tenuous human connections in the modern age. Creepy, smart and absorbing, it gives us a novel villainess of our own making, and one we truly deserve.

3 1/2 stars

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