“M3GAN” Brings the Killer-Doll Movie Into the 21st Century

Move over, Chucky

January 6, 2023 6:00 am
M3GAN attacks in "M3GAN"
Universal Pictures

Killer-doll horror may be more popular than ever in the 21st century, but the dolls themselves often seem stuck back in the early 20th. Series-spawning figures like Annabelle and Brahms maintain porcelain-smooth skin and daintily old-fashioned outfits that would look drastically out of place in any contemporary toy aisle; even the unkillable Chucky, an of-the-moment evil plaything back in 1988, has become a retro object in the world of his excellent present-set TV show. The closest Chucky came to modernization was in the 2019 remake of Child’s Play, which recast Chucky as a malevolent A.I., rather than a doll possessed with the spirit of a human serial killer. M3GAN, the new killer-doll picture from producer James Wan, takes this further: Its title character is a full-fledged robotic companion — a toy in name only that will, if brought to market, set parents back a cool $10,000. She’s a killer doll adapting for an era where kids abandon their toys for screens earlier than ever, as adults like Gemma (Allison Williams) keep their own toys as “collectibles,” unopened on a shelf.

If Williams (forever Marnie on Girls in my heart) doesn’t exactly seem like the adult-toy-collector type, she is still eminently believable playing a woman who has no idea what to do with a child. When Gemma takes custody of her orphaned nine-year-old niece Cady (Violet McGraw), it only increases her drive to complete her passion project: M3GAN, a major step forward for a toy company that previously specialized in Furby-like interactive fuzzballs. Newly saddled with the responsibilities of a guardian, Gemma happily offloads the tough parts of parenting to her robot creation — which is so sophisticated that it can go beyond nagging (remember to flush the toilet and brush your teeth) to have heart-to-hearts about the child’s grief. Gemma can subsume her own fussy adult hang-ups, like her compulsion to make sure Cady uses a coaster, into the doll’s programming.

This is M3GAN’s point of departure from that Child’s Play remake, which it otherwise closely resembles: While that movie’s working single mother was trying her best to make ends meet and provide for a lonely child, Gemma is both financially secure and emotionally brusque; it’s a great unspoken joke that an literal robot makes for a more nurturing companion to Cady. Of course, M3GAN’s imprinting goes haywire, and her directive to protect Cady at all costs turns both deadly and fabulous. M3GAN (played by Amie McDonald and some special effects; voiced by Jenna Davis) is by far the best-dressed killer doll in modern cinema, rocking a bowknot tie, Mary Janes and a series of stylish coats. (This diminutive robot owns more winter coats than my actual human daughter.)

There a number of interconnected and sometimes underdeveloped parenting metaphors running through M3GAN, which is satirically funny more often than it’s bone-chillingly scary — or rather, what’s scary about it is also what it depicts as blackly amusing. The film’s most provocative innovation, also a departure from Child’s Play and the like, is depicting M3GAN, Gemma and even Cady as potential monsters: the robot doll with her autonomous zeal for surrogate parenting, Gemma in her Dr. Frankenstein-like ambition and more quotidian neglect (played with perfectly cringeworthy bravery by Williams) and Cady as a child who becomes dangerously attached to her all-encompassing toy. This turns M3GAN into an unholy combination of favorite stuffy and ever-expanding screentime. As someone in the movie points out, it’s a toy designed for kids not to grow out of it, but instead lock into a smartphone-like dependency. 

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Screen time is something nearly any contemporary parent must grapple with, either thoughtfully or in desperation, and the movie’s ideas about its insidious nature would read as old-fashioned if they weren’t delivered with such a wink by screenwriter Akela Cooper (who also wrote Wan’s directorial project Malignant) and director Gerard Johnstone — and if the movie itself hadn’t been meme’d half to death before it was even released. Though the GIF-able moments of the film’s trailer dilute its wildest moments, muting the sense of bonkers surprise that informed Malignant, the Orphan movies or recent killer-doll benchmark The Boy, it’s the meme-friendly design of M3GAN herself that keeps the movie from becoming a scold-and-shame session for distracted parents. Her fake eyes are expressively watchful and narrowing, her natural doll-faced placidity coming to resemble icy confidence. Even when she’s hobbled in a physical conflict, her herky-jerk movements look more like interpretive dance than the usual “scary” motions of contortionist-ghost figures.

It’s in these seemingly human quirks that M3GAN paradoxically most resembles a toy, and a dangerous one at that: Impeccably dressed and impossibly flexible, she offers a warped ideal of a superhuman role model, an imitation parent who lives only to enthrall, impress and protect their child. Cooper, Johnstone and Wan back away from the weirder implications here; there’s a moment where the doll seems hellbent on locking Gemma into an unwilling partnership that’s allowed to dissipate with the big laugh it provides. Briefly, the movie locks into a hilariously ghoulish fantasy-nightmare: A toy that stays together for the children! M3GAN doesn’t pursue its deepest, darkest impulses. But true to form, it does make a hell of an action figure.

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