Come January, Hollywood always undergoes a strange shift in its major releases, from awards-centric fare and festive hits to the doldrums of the post-holiday season. Studios usually regard this period as a dumping ground for low-quality genre films that seem designed to be quickly forgotten. But 2023 is different, because this year, viewers have a special new friend to help them acclimatize: a pint-size robot girl named M3GAN. She’s full of fun facts, exceptionally strong, and surprisingly fond of belting out modern pop songs at random moments, even though she’s dressed like a preppy coed.
Oh, and one other thing: M3GAN, the “Model 3 Generative Android” created by the brilliant but awkward roboticist Gemma (played by Allison Williams), is a touch homicidal. That’s a problem for Gemma and her recently orphaned niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), for whom M3GAN is meant as a therapeutic gift. The violent tendencies only mean more amusement for audiences, who can kick off the year with 102 minutes of zany, self-aware horror. Yes, Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN is pulled from January’s bucket of mostly low-budget pablum, but it’s cheeky and knowing enough to stand out from the slop.
Superficially, the film is a treatise on technology run amok, although it is not told with any sort of real-world nuance. Gemma is a lonely genius who pours herself into making intelligent-seeming, Furby-like toys that can chat with their owners. Her passion project, however, is far more advanced. When Cady’s parents die in a car accident, Gemma uses her as the first test audience for M3GAN. The companion bot has an advanced-AI-filled noggin, a reinforced-titanium skeleton, and vulcanized-silicone skin. She’s a blank, disturbingly smooth-looking creature—a scaled-up Bratz doll in a sensible overcoat and ribbon bow.
It is exceedingly difficult to imagine just how Gemma and a few lab assistants could have knocked together such a complicated invention in her garage, but who cares! However she was created, M3GAN (performed by the child actor Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) is a perfect distillation of every parent’s worst nightmare: What if your kid’s doll could talk back, was smarter than you, and had the ability to crush your windpipe? As her programming dictates, M3GAN is automatically loyal to Cady, but that quickly translates into a general hostility toward all other people; the cold-eyed automaton will crush anyone who tries to impede her charge’s fun.
Among M3GAN’s targets are a school bully, a nosy neighbor, and a conniving lab assistant. When she enters battle mode, she scuttles across the floor on all fours like a possessed crab, though she sometimes mixes in some hypnotic, twerky dance moves without warning. All of these moments are played for joyful frights; Johnstone knows viewers won’t perceive M3GAN as anything but terrifying from moment one, so he delights in drawing out her malevolence while the well-meaning yet oblivious Gemma tries to get her design ready for commercial production.
Of course, everyone’s supposed to jump in their seats whenever M3GAN wields a weapon or tries to strangle someone. To me, though, the scariest thing she’s capable of is disobeying orders. Early in her life, if someone asks her to turn off, she does it immediately, but as her self-awareness grows, she becomes less and less interested in following commands. The first time M3GAN flatly declines to go into sleep mode sent a chill up my spine; can you imagine an Alexa rebuffing any attempts to unplug it? At least our virtual assistants don’t have arms, legs, and a very bad attitude.
M3GAN works because of the pure silliness of its premise and the uncanniness of its title character, but Johnstone’s real achievement is knowing exactly how seriously to take himself. This isn’t the kind of horror movie that’s unintentionally so bad that it’s good. This is a well-executed, if broad, piece of arch comedy with a few scares and PG-13-level kills woven into the script. Williams has long excelled at playing minimally introspective characters, and she makes Gemma appreciably dopey. The rest of the ensemble has a similar comic sense, crucial for the ridiculousness that’s waiting around every narrative corner. M3GAN is up to no good, but M3GAN is committed to giving us a great time, making it an ideal launch for a season not of prestige releases but of plain and simple entertainment.