January 30, 2023

Film Review: M3GAN

5 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | Jan. 21, 2023

Why any critic who suffers from both robophobia (hatred of the robotic) and pediophobia (fear of dolls) would be excited about the uncanny valley that makes up the film M3GAN is hard to say, but audiences and I both seem solidly captivated by the latest psycho-mechanical thriller from Blumhouse, a studio factory of smart and contemporary horror franchises.

The on-screen story begins with a literal smash and a family tragedy that pairs a workaholic woman with her orphaned niece at a moment in time when she can least afford to care for her.

Distant aunt-turned-mom Gemma (Allison Williams in realistic restraint) is the single woman and brilliant engineer who wants to recreate the world in her optimistic and obsessive way at all costs. Niece Cady (played by 11-year-old Violet McGraw) is the quiet child who finds herself being cared for by someone she hardly knows as she becomes more distrustful of grown-ups for growing reasons.

To make amends for her absenteeism as a guardian, Gemma decides to combine her professional and personal lives into one. She forces Cady to become the test subject in a secret AI toy project that will change the industry forever with the launch of her creation M3GAN—not just a living doll that can play with you, but a complete on-demand companion for all your needs.

M3GAN is part affectionate Alexa that knows everything and part imaginary friend who’s come to life. Her processing power, optical and audio scanning, and increasingly nuanced understanding of power dynamics gives her a sense of how biometrics reveal even the most hidden human emotions. M3GAN quickly calculates her place in the world while self-programming to protect her “paired” or synced child by any means necessary.

Movie magic nerds will be puzzled and dazzled by the behind-the-scenes combination of puppetry, CGI FX, androids, and live actresses of all ages that co-created the title character to chilling effect.

Cady finds in the toy an unhealthy connection she can’t let go of, and from there the film begins smashing the Turing test to pieces in ways we should have, but never did, imagine. The saucy and sometimes bloody plot is eerily possible, as AI crosses over to a point of quasi-consciousness powered by the superspeed of machine learning. Along the way, it’s also quite fun, thanks in large part to the talents of director Gerard Johnstone and writers Akela Cooper and James Wan.

While there is some tongue-in-cheek attitude at work with the greedy toy company rushing the untested product to market (and unleashing the power of giant new technologies without fully understanding what they may actually be capable of), the rest of the tone looks and feels a lot like the real-world madness of Crispr or Elon Musk’s cavalier Tesla bravado.

There’s a haunting recognition to it all, even if you’ve just been glancing at the now explosive headlines about the speed of AI programming that produces writing, artwork, and other humanoid creations all without our egos, personalities, or imaginations. (That may explain why just days after its release, the film had provoked front page stories in both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.)

M3GAN’s power is that it taps into an uneasiness we’re now coming face-to-face with, but it does so with popcorn-movie style, speed, and entertainment…tricking us so we never even see what’s coming.

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