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Moving Pictures: “M3GAN” Dances On

This one is for all you iPad kids out there.

By Entertainment

Still from “M3GAN” (2022).

Blumhouse Pictures latest film, “M3GAN,” dares to ask the question: what if the large lovable white robot of “Big Hero Six” was instead a homicidal, blonde hair, blue-eyed four-foot tall doll? It’s a little bit of “I Robot” meets “Chucky,” “Annabelle” meets “A.I.,” “Ex Machina” with some murderous “Toy Story,” all scored with an acoustic cover of Sia’s “Titanium.” Not nearly as thematically complex as those science fiction films, “M3GAN” is uninterested in questions of M3GAN’s rights, individuality, or agency. What it does do is borrow images from those movies, and then mash them up with the gleeful violence of the toys-gone-wrong genre. And it’s precisely its lack of seriousness that makes “M3GAN” such a good time in cinemas, leaning into tropes, without ever being ashamed of doing so.

Girlboss toy designer Gemma (Allison Williams) is working her hardest to build the toy that will replace all toys, a semi-living doll that will pair with its child owner to supplement or replace the parental figure. The company’s CEO is demanding she put out a prototype ASAP, but before she can finish the project, she is suddenly saddled with the burden of caring for her young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), who has just lost her parents.

I trust you can already see where this is going, unlike Gemma, who is blind to the obvious perils before her. This is largely a film about Gemma’s mistakes: her Icarus-like pursuit for prestige, her reckless disregard for protocol, and her fumbling care for her grieving niece. Daft protagonists are not new to the horror genre; much of the genre in fact depends on their central characters making bad decisions. But Gemma is particularly flawed in many aspects, scarcely making a likable decision across the film. It’s a good thing she’s being played by Alison Williams, who makes us believe Gemma would make these mistakes, rather than having those errors manifest as recurring plot devices. Her decisions are consistent across the film because this is an emotionally stunted person, with good intentions, but little foresight. We get frustrated with Gemma but we don’t get frustrated with the filmmakers because we can understand Gemma’s conflicting loyalties.

Another staple of the horror genre is the irritating child. Violet McGraw as Cady fulfills this role in spades, full of tantrums and outbursts of rage. But like Gemma, we understand Cady and her actions not just because of her performance but also because of how her character evolves (or devolves) through the film. There isn’t a binary between her stoicism and her screaming. There is a steady incline in her instability, growing as her bond with M3GAN does, an evolution that Gemma in her stumbling parenting, is unable to notice.

And that takes us to M3GAN. Wide-eyed, unblinking M3GAN who runs like a wolf and sings with an internal echo. The production design for M3GAN is fantastic. She is constantly surprising both with her voice, performed by Jenna Davis and with her physicality, performed by Amie Donald. The film absolutely nails the unintended disjunct that occurs when advanced technology tries to replicate human life. There is a deliberate uncanny valley being plumbed through M3GAN that feels very topical. The closest way I can describe the look on M3GAN’s face is the same feeling as watching the dance sequences from Tom Hooper’s “Cats” or the dead eyes of the animals in the 2019 remake of “The Lion King.” The only difference this time being that the discomfort is on purpose.

Not all parts of the film feel as intentional, like one of the film’s subplots about the assistant to the CEO. It’s about as predictable as the rest of the film’s other elements but the difference is that this character is so thin, the transparency feels forced rather than earned. We see what’s coming a mile away, and unlike M3GAN sprinting on all fours through the woods, there’s hardly anything terrifying about it.

The film does also, and I don’t say this lightly, feel a little short. I’m always a fan of shorter movies that are efficient with their stories, especially in the horror genre that can become tired if overstretched. But the film felt like it was lacking one more M3GAN sequence to really bring us over the edge. There are undoubtedly some fun sequences that ramp up in terror. But the finale felt like it was coming too soon, as if the film was saving additional scares for its sequel, which this film attempts to set up. Perhaps in “M2GAN,” we will actually contend with some of the deeper questions presented here. But it’s more likely it’ll be about two, perhaps three, or even a whole fleet of M3GANs wreaking havoc. I certainly won’t mind, as long as they harmonize on “Titanium’s” chorus.

Is M3GAN a m3taphor? Maybe. Maybe she’s a symbol of the ails of iPad parenting, the ubiquity of surveillance in our lives, our constant need for distraction to stave off processing our actual emotions. But none of that symbology really matters when you see her doing a dance from TikTok. In that moment, you’re experiencing one of three things, or perhaps all three at once: you’re either laughing at the ridiculousness of it, frightened by the deadly possibility, or dancing along to a track with a beat you already know.

Myle Yan Tay (MFAW 2023) cares a lot about movies and comic books. One day, maybe they will care about him. Find more of his writing at www.myleyantay.com.

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