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'M3GAN' does what it needs to as a horror film — but gets one thing wrong

Movies about killer robots show us such obvious and extreme dangers that we’ve allowed the slow creep of subtler but equally scary threats to our privacy and safety.
A still from M3GAN.
A still from M3GAN.Geoffrey Short / Universal

The most chilling moment in Gerard Johnstone’s new horror film, “M3GAN,” comes early. It comes from Gemma (Allison Williams), who is the chief roboticist at “Funki Toys”; its biggest success to date has been “PurRpetual Pets,” petlike robots operated with a combination of artificial intelligence and tablet control. 

Now, Gemma casually says that she has used the technology of the pet robots to develop the company’s next big product: the title character, a childlike doll robot. 

It’s built to meme, filled with bonkers images, memorable one-liners, and welcome winks. The filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing, and the audience has a blast.

No big deal, right? It’s a throwaway remark — let your attention wander for a second, and you’ll miss it. Except the doll’s AI is partly built off a listening device installed in all the PurRpetual Pets, which observes the conversational patterns of children.

“I didn’t hear that!” her CEO (Ronny Chieng) exclaims, and his response is fairly universal: Not one of us actually wants to know the extent to which our smart devices and personal assistants are listening, observing and reacting. And when it comes to the dangers of artificial intelligence, we would rather imagine the fantastical, blood-soaked disasters of a story like this one than the tiny moral and personal compromises we’re making every day.  

None of which takes anything away from the simple pleasures of “M3GAN,” a movie far better than its early-January release date and its PG-13 rating. The first month of the calendar year is traditionally the dumping ground for the most red-headed stepchildren of the studio slate, and a PG-13 rating is often a bad sign for horror pictures, though this one ghoulishly tests the boundaries of that guideline. Its wildly popular — and immediately viral — trailer seems to give away the entire story, beat by beat, but what it can’t convey is the picture’s delightfully oddball tone, which is poised at a peculiar juncture of slasher horror and self-aware satire. It’s built to meme, filled with bonkers images, memorable one-liners and welcome winks. The filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing, and the audience has a blast.

And it’s not the kind of film that’s designed to blindside us with its narrative ingenuity. It’s a tale as old as time, a “Frankenstein” for the digital age, with generous portions of “Child’s Play” and “The Terminator” ladled in. The common flavor of all those ingredients is the juicy theme of playing God — of what happens when we create life, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and the dangers inherent when that life form begins to think (and feel, and, eventually, kill) on its own.

Gemma, dressed in flannels, so you know she’s an antisocial nerd, has developed M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative ANdroid. But her timing couldn’t be better; just as she’s putting on the finishing touches, she’s given temporary protective custody of Cady (Violet McGraw), her niece, newly orphaned in a harrowing prologue sequence. With her cold personality and overall fastidiousness, Gemma is not terribly maternal, but she quickly realizes Cady will make a perfect test case for M3GAN, who “pairs” with her child companion, learning their behaviors and how to be a better friend. 

As a character, M3GAN is a marvel of design, combining body actor (Amie Donald), voice (Jenna Davis), animatronics, makeup and special effects. She’s made to look like a demented Olsen twin, and her not-quite-human movements — cocking of her head, her solidly sprung stride — and too-good-to-be-true personality make her fairly creepy even before her inevitable transition to evil. Akela Cooper’s screenplay (from a story cooked up with prolific horror filmmaker James Wan) checks the boxes carefully, setting up the conflicts, villains and oversights (“You didn’t code in parental controls?!?” asks one of her programmers) that will flip M3GAN’s switch down the line. The logic at work is sound: Her primary objective is to protect Cady from harm, and since she’s programmed to learn and recalibrate, she rather easily becomes a cold-blooded little killing machine when Cady is in danger. 

“M3GAN” works on the level of a slasher origin story, credible as horror and over-the-top enough to keep an audience on its toes (its third act especially is bleakly, savagely funny). But it also plays, frequently and effectively, as a pointed commentary on our obsession with the convenience provided by technology. A key part of the robot’s sales pitch is that its attendance to the dull particulars of parenting will “leave you with more time, so you can focus on the things that matter to you.” (This notion is illustrated by the image of Gemma relaxing by … opening her laptop.) The implication of this statement is that what matters is not your children and their nonsense, posing the provocative question of whether our devices and screens serve to complement us as parents or replace us. 

The filmmakers underline this point by surrounding their sci-fi premise with facsimiles of real, current technology: smartphones, smart cars and personal assistants, the latter in the form of an Alexa-style home assistant called Elsie. That device’s opportunities for tension are mostly unexplored, though some dread is generated when it begins to ask unprogrammed questions and ignore requests; it cannot help but pale in comparison to something like Steven Soderbergh’s “Kimi,” set squarely in the real world, in which the surveillance, tracking and information we voluntarily supply to our devices are what put the protagonist’s life in peril, rather than an object of science fiction.

That is, it seems, what the movies keep getting wrong about the troubling possibilities and consequences of artificial intelligence — that the killer robots of “M3GAN” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” are such an obvious and overwhelming danger that we’ve allowed the slow creep of subtler but equally scary threats to our privacy and safety, all in the name of ease and comfort. (“Humanity kills every day, just to make its existence more bearable,” M3GAN cackles, presumably after doing some online reading about Apple and Foxconn’s Longhua facility.) The film’s closing shot is easy to read as the inevitable setup for the slasher sequel, an assurance that the evil is not permanently vanquished but temporarily paused. But the actual implications of that composition make it the second most horrifying image in the picture.