Director: Gerard Johnstone
Screenwriters: Aleka Cooper
Starring: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis
Following their collaboration on 2021’s Malignant, writing duo Aleka Cooper and James Wan (Saw) have re-teamed for another crack at the whip, this time attacking the evil robot theme that has so long been a staple of the horror genre, especially in the slasher subgenre.
After the tragic death of her parents, young Cady (Violet McGraw) lives with her aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams). With the two not managing to bond, Gemma creates the titular M3gan (acted by Amie Donald, and voiced by Jenna Davis), a fully automated four foot robot toy that learns as it goes, as a companion for her niece. Unfortunately, Gemma didn’t code M3gan too well, and in the days leading up to M3gan’s launch onto the market, the need to do absolutely anything to protect Cady seeps into M3gan’s makeup.
Considering that “Frankenstein” became the archetypical story for both modern horror and science-fiction stories (not the first of either genre, but still arguably the archetypal narrative), occasional reworkings to the narrative are not rare. Here, the old tale is updated for the broken nuclear family, the height of unashamed capitalism, technology now the emotional blocker between interpersonal relationships. And whilst the story itself is fairly generic, playing out to the same regular beats as you’ll be expecting (right down to who is going to be present in the finale and what the stakes are going to be), the quiet and controlled execution of the pacing is what sets the film apart.
Violet McGraw and Allison Williams work well as the pair at the heart of the film, their inability to connect to one another selling the coldness of the narrative effectively. It’s hard, especially with a child actress, to act like you don’t connect, and that it is managed here is to be praised. It also manages to establish the cold, harsh tone of what Cooper and Wan were aiming for – one that tries to discuss emotion and human relationships, but does so as if looking through a glass, like taking notes on an ant farm.
The cinematography by Peter McCaffrey gives a gloomy, murky impression, with the woods misty and dark, and most of the lighting coming from artificial lights rather than basking in the sun, carrying on the thematics. The humourous moments come mostly through Chieng’s corporate boss, David, and the idea that fun is allowed only to those who can afford it speaks volumes with regard to this film’s overarching messages on our societal ways.
And still, despite M3GAN’s attempts to discuss the possible impacts of technology on our relationships with one another, bringing it above the standard slasher fare of modern Hollywood horror, modern Hollywood horror is still what it is, and so no matter how well paced it is (slowly building up the tension rather than going for all-out thrills straight away), it still holds back from fully exploring its subject matter.
It still has its references and allusions and comparisons to other killer doll films (Child’s Play being the obvious comparison, especially the 2019 remake), and sentient killer robot films (2001: A Space Odyssey’s sentient HAL-9000 for example, or the crawling Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, even Kayako in Ju-on: The Grudge for an out-there comparison), because modern fare must have its metatextual, easter-egg fare as standard. Indeed, in one of the most violent sections of the film, two of the characters are killed in a corridor painted blood red, possibly an allusion to the red corridor before the elevator of blood in The Shining.
Yet, despite the child psychologist of the film discussing attachment theory with Gemma, Gemma never thinks to raise this issue with M3gan as a possible way to get her to stop her growing rampage. The odd barbed line is tossed back and forth, but actual moral issues, theological questions on the creation of life, the philosophical and ethical dilemmas raised by this scenario, and how they relate to Cady as a person growing and learning (much like M3gan), are swiftly moved past. 2014’s Ex Machina was not afraid to discuss these issues, nor the 2011 National Theatre Live performances of “Frankenstein”. Even John Carpenter’s comedic low-budget Dark Star from 1974 has a theological war of words with a sentient bomb to prevent it blowing up the ship. Why does M3gan not spend time doing this? Because this is a studio-backed horror/thriller, which must do what studio-backed horror/thrillers have been told they must do.
Their focus is on creeping you out, occasionally alluding to some grander intellectual thought so as to not be criticised as being pointless exercises in violence, and then returning to the murder spree. This is the system which the film producers and studio execs, and us (the viewer), have decided we want, and God forbid anything should attempt to challenge this.
M3GAN is a well crafted, well plotted, above-average run of the story you’re expecting from the trailer. Theoretically, it has no business being as well made as it has been. However, it has to conform to the ideas and restraints of the environment and system it is created in, and unlike M3gan herself, it cannot go beyond its programming to become something new and extraordinary.
M3GAN is an effective thriller which knocks at the door of something more, but is conditioned not to open it.