Gerard Johnstone's M3GAN draws back the dark curtains of the killer-doll movie genre and lets the sunshine in. The picture is a blast for a number of reasons, but mainly because of its one-of-a-kind star, an unnervingly implacable robo-girl named M3gan, who's literally a piece of work. M3gan isn't a toxic horror brat in the tradition of Chucky, but she probably shouldn't be allowed anywhere near that nail gun out in the garage, either.
The picture is more fun than we might normally expect in the cursed movie month of January. Director Johnstone, making his second feature, takes a counterintuitive approach to the genre, and it brings a fresh clarity to the action, some of which plays out in brightly lit labs and sunny woodlands. He also embraces the limitations of the movie's PG-13 rating, which he says is not a result of traditional studio editing pressure. As he told the GamesRadar website, PG-13 is what he was aiming for—even to the extent of reshooting some scenes that might've verged too close to an R. "Some of my favorite films, like Drag Me to Hell, are PG-13," he said. "It's fun having to rely on sound and suggestion so much."
The movie is set in the Pacific Northwest (although it was largely filmed in Johnstone's native New Zealand). A young woman named Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics engineer at a toy company, suddenly finds herself the guardian of her nine-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), after her parents die in an auto crash. Gemma is not prepared for the responsibilities this unexpected onset of single-parenthood entails ("I don't even take care of my own plants," she says). So it's fortuitous that her current project at the cyber-toy lab is a "Model 3 generative android"—M3gan. M3gan has video cameras inside her eyes, built-in GPS, endless hard-drive storage (she's constantly evolving), and the ability—an unsettling one, if you think about it even just a little bit—to talk to every linked gadget in a modern "smart" home. She can also read kiddie bedtime stories for as long as a kiddie might desire. In short, as far as Gemma is concerned, this robo-moppet is heaven-sent.
But one has to be careful around M3gan—she's not the sort of little girl you'd want to annoy in any way. So whenever irksome things happen to her—courtesy of a blathering neighbor lady with a vicious dog, for instance, or a bully who makes the huge mistake of menacing Cady—we settle back in pleasurable anticipation of the epic whomping we know we're about to witness. These payback outbursts might not be as wildly violent as the most bloodthirsty genre fans would like, but really, so what? They're carefully and wittily constructed, and the movie sells them with sheer atmosphere and cleverly cranked-up tension. They're a lot of fun.
The picture itself is fun from stem to stern, thanks to a slick, funny script by Akela Cooper, who cooked up the story with Australian horror god James Wan (also her collaborator on last year's endearingly gruesome Malignant). But it's M3gan who brings the chills. As a screen presence, she's a wonderfully eerie FX confection, with a lightly stilted gait and big liquid eyes that shift from side to side as she assesses her surroundings (disapprovingly, for the most part). She's brought to life by a young New Zealand dancer named Amie Donald, who presumably created the character's strange, meme-ready dance moves. (Another departure from killer doll tradition: M3gan not only dances—sometimes with a machete in hand—she sings, too, in a voice provided throughout by American actor Jenna Davis.) And despite her baleful stare and deadpan delivery, she also has a nice way with one-liners. "Jesus Christ," she says when somebody crosses her, "I thought we were friends."