M3gan is a flat-out horror treat to start 2023 off – and it might just have brought us a brand new horror icon too.
The devil, you will have heard, is in the details. In the case of M3gan, the artificially-intelligent doll companion and instant horror icon, it takes just one tiny, familiar flaw in her logic to transform her from best friend to worst nightmare. Meanwhile, there’s a brillaint abundance of wickedly-decided, but sometimes extremely small, filmmaking details that should grant her namesake movie immediate cult status.
Indeed, without such sophisticated, witty execution, M3gan might have been a total misfire. The concept isn’t exactly the same as the 2019 remake of Child’s Play but they do have a lot in common: a cutting edge tech company produces a child-like robot that turns murderous in the course of ‘protecting’ its one special human kid. Both films even wrestle with the same set of themes around parenting and childrens’ engagement with modern technology. It’s quite odd that M3gan went into production so soon after Child’s Play came and went but the confidence was not misplaced – this new movie really is something meaningfully similar but also just better.
To be blunt, Child’s Play worked well enough to entertain me while I was watching it, and I do remember feeling pleasantly surprised how honest it was, but I’ve more or less forgotten about it in the years since. Not only is M3gan the far more memorable film of the two, it’s also that bit sharper and more intelligent. It manages to form a more cohesive argument, tracks its characters’ emotions and development more astutely, and applies enough brilliantly left-of-centre cinematic thinking to make its jokes funnier and light-horror chases and jump-scares more exciting than anything the Child’s Play do-over could even stretch for.
At the centre of M3gan is Alison Williams as Gemma, an inventor who barely knows how to deal with anybody at all let alone kids. She’s suddenly landed with the custody of her young niece after a tragic accident and quickly does what any bad parent does, delegating her duty of care to a bit of electronics. Rather than a TV set hooked up to loops of Bluey or a Roblox-saturated iPad, however, Gemma leans on a prototype robot she is somewhat proud to have invented herself.
Gemma is certainly the film’s protagonist but she’s not the star; that’s not even the tender and soulful Violet McGraw who plays the bereaved child, Cady, and who effortlessly grounds the film whenever necessary. The star of this film is undoubtedly M3gan herself.
Sometimes animatronic, sometimes an actor in a mask and regularly enhanced with subtle, uncanny and unsettling CG acting, M3gan is a superb set of nested magic tricks. She will easily pass as a creepy robot in pretty much every scene, allowing the audience to forget the so-clever mask work and puppetry that took place on set. She’s brilliantly designed down to those most devilish of details, with a look that pops right off the screen. Not since the Ghostface mask in Scream has such a perfect bit of creepshow iconography just arrived so fully formed and thought-through.
Plaudits for M3gan’s realisation should go to voice actor Jenna Davis, mime Amie Donald, and the whole team of model makers and FX technicians, but the consistency and integrity of her overall concept is a credit to director Gerard Johnstone. I’ve been crowing about his work since I first saw his extraordinary debut film Housebound, and I think he’s on the cusp of being a massive favourite of millions of movie lovers. Johnstone shows an amazing knack for ‘plussing’ the script’s ideas – which is most infamously demonstrated by his decision for M3gan to bust out some killer dance moves when she’s in the throes of a climactic and deadly pursuit scene.
A taste of that unexpected choreography became a meme within minutes of the film’s first trailer launching, and the marketing almost as quickly took a sharp skew towards the camp – indulging, for example, in the contemporary double meaning of the word ‘slay.’ The film isn’t as consistently kitsch as this might suggest, and it’s certainly not got a gonzo splatter festival like screenwriter Akela Cooper and producer James Wan’s last collaboration, Malignant. It is at once a truly eccentric and quite steadily measured film – not to mention one that was reportedly de-gorified in reshoots.
I found it obvious where the blood was not. In fact, I remember only one real quantity of the red stuff on screen, and it’s not even in the same frame as the poor person it was bled from. Perhaps a certain sort of audience might have their expectations set slightly wrongly for M3gan, but I do expect they’ll still be won over by the film’s sheer polish, momentum and lopsided dark humour.
To be blunt, the film’s conclusion does lay down some obvious wiring work to prepare for a sequel. Blumhouse and Atomic Monster clearly intended for M3gan to be something of a repeat offender right from the off. But they called it right, I’m sure. Success seems guaranteed, but also well-earned. Better still, building a new movie on the foundation established here should yield very strong results – like a TV writer learning the voice of an actor after the early episodes go before cameras, there was a lot of sterling work done in bringing M3gan to life for her first film that can only pay dividends in the future.
M3gan rolls out into cinemas in the US on 6 January then arrives in UK cinemas on 13 January. I fully recommend it for a rollicking night out.
Keep an eye on the site for an interview with Gerard Johnstone in which we also discuss a lot of his brilliant directorial choices in M3gan, as well as his fantastic back catalogue of projects.
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