Critic & Son – M3gan Edition
One of my proudest moments recently came during last October. My son, Liam, has been dipping his toe into the murky pool of horror movies. During dinner, he told me he was ready for one of the big ones, the OG Halloween. Did I want to watch it with him? Well. In a moment of parental maturity, I nearly lunged over the table and yelled, “YOU’RE DAMN SKIPPY I DO!” And, as is the tradition, my wife rolled her eyes at this.
So how did he like the merry adventures of one Michael Myers, esquire? He dug it! I told him that the franchise has more than its fair share of crap, yet there are diamonds to be found. Seeing that movie opened a door. Now he’s stepped through and is learning more about what he does and doesn’t like in the wide world of horror.
That led us to M3gan, the new killer doll film from Blumhouse. Prior to that, Liam made the excellent point that there is no M3gan without good old Chucky, which is why we watched the ur-killer doll film Child’s Play. How was it? At its core, pretty good. You can see why it’s become a venerable horror franchise, but it doesn’t have the propulsive momentum of Halloween. It doesn’t have the surrealism of A Nightmare on Elm Street. It only has a little of the wacky splatstick humor found in The Evil Dead films.*
If I’m being honest with you, my somewhat tepid reaction to Child’s Play colored my anticipation for M3gan. We dutifully went to the theater, made ourselves comfortable, and prepared for a modern-day ripoff that was sure to be mediocre. Foolish critic! Because, if I’m being honest with you, we had a frickin’ blast.
We begin with a big ol’ bummer. The bad news is that Cady’s (Violet McGraw) parents die. On their way up for a ski vacation, they’re in a terrible car accident involving a snowplow. Cady is the only survivor. The loss would make anyone feel bereft, but she’s nine years old and loss hits particularly hard at that age.
Cady is sent off to live with her Aunt. That would be Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist employed by the cutting-edge tech toy company Funki. Gemma genuinely loves her niece. She’s also a workaholic who’s under enormous pressure. Her boss David (Ronny Chieng) needs her to develop something new, something visionary, something to, in his words, “kick Hasbro in the dick.”
What Gemma has could do that. She’s developed M3gan (motion capture by Amie Donald, voice by Jenna Davis), a child-sized android constructed from titanium and powered by artificial intelligence so advanced that the CIA would probably kill for it. How advanced is she/it? So much so that when she/it is in the presence of a child, she/it will first “imprint” on the child and form a seemingly unbreakable bond. From there, M3gan will utilize advanced learning capabilities in order to be anything the child needs them to be.
Think it’s a good idea? Yeah, neither do Gemma’s co-workers Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez). Gemma overrules them and brings M3gan home to Cady. Cady is overjoyed by her new playmate. So much so that she wants to spend all of her time with M3gan. “What harm could it cause,” Gemma figures. As it turns out, quite a lot!
It’s been a minute since we’ve done a Critic & Son installment. With M3gan, Liam will throw out a paragraph or two of his thoughts in italics. Then I’ll jump in, then everybody can go home.
Firstly, M3Gan is a good film, contrary to what the trailers show. It’s professionally made, well executed and all around fun. Before seeing this movie, I’d been watching my fair share of Horror movies, new and old. As stated above, we watched the original Child’s Play before this, but I personally watched and rewatched some other spook-filled movies, Willy’s Wonderland, Gremlins and Scream, to name a few.
Now, I enjoyed all of those movies, they were all funny and entertaining, much like M3Gan, but there are a few things that M3Gan does differently. That’s not to say those movies lack scary moments, the beginning Ghostface chase in Scream is scary and horrific in its own right, but M3Gan has some fun classic scares in the second act like Halloween before it. It has some genuinely terrifying moments, which are unfortunately few and far between in this modern era of horror desensitization. In M3Gan, the way the doll moves is terrifying, the few scares early on are excellent, and the film’s PG13 rating lets it consistently build tension throughout. M3Gan is a classic slow burn horror movie and it excels at that, and it’s a refreshing, spooky bit of almost classic horror whose trailers do not do it justice.
Yeah, what he said. Director Gerard Johnstone does nearly everything right. In the first act, relationships are established and, unlike a fair amount of horror, we’re given reasons to care about the characters. The second act is designed as a slow burn, and there’s a few jump scares and assorted moments of cybernetic tomfoolery. The third act is where Johnstone stomps on the gas, and we’re treated to chases, subterfuges, and the highly improper usage of a machete. Better yet is the strong effects work used to bring M3gan to unholy life. As Liam mentioned earlier, the way she moves is wrong, yet right since she’s a machine that’s learning fast. My only issue? By and large, M3gan is more fun and exciting than it is scary. The few jump scares feel perfunctory. I felt a degree of, “And…yep, there’s a jump scare, moving on!”
Credit is also due to the amusing screenplay by Akela Cooper and James Wan. At times, it’s almost like they’re channeling Paul Verhoeven with their snide jabs toward child-focused materialism. Their script isn’t as cynical as Verhoeven’s work, though, and a good amount of time is spent with Gemma’s often painful learning curve toward guardianship. That’s smart, since the tense relationship between Gemma and Cady also has clever parallels with the codependent Cady/M3gan duo.
It’s good that M3gan is a smart and solid little film, and I can only imagine that audiences will have a great time with it. It’s better that this is a great example of gateway horror, not too scary/bloody/disturbing for newbies of the horror genre, yet it’s appealing enough to tempt viewers into venturing further. While I’m not saying I want Liam to dive headlong into the New French Extremity, I hope M3gan shows him that it’s only the first example of movies that are as clever and amusing as they are scary.
*I’m told that later installments of the Chucky series have a clever sense of campy dark humor.