Chucky Finally Has Some Competition in the Slick, Sinister, and Sincere ‘M3GAN’

James Wan, the undisputed champion of modern franchise horror, has blessed the world with some of the biggest names in pop-culture terror. From Saw to Insidious and The Conjuring, Wan is a virtual King Midas within the genre, cranking out hit after hit for nearly two decades now.

Also, he made Aquaman. So win some, lose some, I guess.

But the writer/director superstar didn’t achieve true perfection until September of 2021, when he gifted audiences with perhaps his greatest contribution to the horror landscape: Malignant. Now, if you haven’t seen this complete and utter masterpiece of cheese and insanity, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and rectify that mistake (or you can just read my thoughts on it here, if you’re feeling lazy). But for those of you who’ve already had the good fortune of viewing this two-hour descent into utter madness, you’ll understand why I was positively ecstatic when it was announced that Wan was producing another film penned by Malignant’s screenwriter, Akela Cooper. Regardless of what the film would ultimately be centered around, if it was anything even remotely like its predecessor, I was 100% onboard.

And when the first trailer dropped for the film, titled M3GAN, I knew we were in for another absolute treat. I mean look at this bonkers nonsense:

Child’s Play meets Orphan with a healthy dose of Terminator? Where’s my other two wishes, magic genie? And that’s without even mentioning the fact that picture was being directed by Gerard Johnstone, a New Zealand native who previously gave us the hilariously weird Housebound in 2014. I was seeing this movie.

And after a long wait, M3GAN was finally unleashed on to theatre screens this past weekend, and you can bet your ass that I was in a seat at my local Regal as soon as I possibly could. Eager for another Wan and Co. thrill ride, I sat with barely-contained excitement, belly full of the requisite amount of alcohol I knew would enhance the experience.

So, by the time the credits begin to roll at a little over the 90 -minute mark, how does the film stack up against the admittedly high bar set by its shlock-horror kin?

Pretty well, actually, with some minor caveats.

The plot is precisely what it says on the tin: After tragically losing her parents in a car accident, a young girl names Katie (played by The Haunting of Hill House’s Violet McGraw) finds herself living with her aunt Gemma (Get Out star Allison Williams). After failing to connect with the grief-stricken youth, Gemma (a talented toy developer and robotics prodigy) build M3GAN, a smart toy designed to bond with and learn from children as it essentially fills in for busy parents. Katie and the android immediately develop a close connection, but Allison begins to suspect that there’s something seriously wrong with her creation when a mysterious series of accidents begin occurring around her niece.

Did you ever see the (shockingly entertaining) 2019 remake of Child’s Play? Yeah, it’s like that. Actually, it’s a lot like that. In fact, it’s basically the same movie. Both films have pretty much the exact same plot, right down to the pacing and obligatory third-act confrontation. And both films play to the same themes as well: An over-reliance on technology when parenting, the disastrous potential consequences of inter-connected ‘smart’ technology, and the dangers of blind consumerism. But while Child’s Play leaned more heavily into straightforward slasher tropes, M3GAN has some tricks up its sleeve.

For one, M3GAN is a much more successful piece of satire than its killer doll cousin. This is due in part to both Akela Cooper’s sharp screenplay as well as Johnstone’s own quirky Kiwi sensibilities, which marry together beautifully to create a wholly unique tonal experience, despite the familiar subject matter. The resulting film is a darkly funny, biting critique of modern consumer culture and iPad parenting, while at the same time managing to deliver both a competent emotional narrative as well as some decent scares along the way.

As much as M3GAN owes these strengths to its creative team, it owes an equal amount of its success to its stellar cast. Particularly, its three leads: Katie, Gemma, and (of course) M3GAN herself are all compelling and interesting characters, whose motivations and flaws are all perfectly understood by the audience. It would have been so easy to throw barebones, cardboard caricatures at the audience and simply coast on M3GAN as the primary attraction here, but the filmmakers wisely sidestep this route in order to actually engage in a surprisingly heartfelt exploration of its characters. Allison Williams does an excellent job at walking the fine line between aloof inventor stereotype and overwhelmed caregiver. She believably comes across as someone who is genuinely trying to connect with her niece, but doesn’t quite have the right skillset to do so, rather than a cliché, on-the-spectrum genius archetype that I feel a lesser film would default to. The creation of the film’s titular automaton is partially motivated by a desire to advance her career, but is ultimately sparked by and rooted in a sincere wish to ease her inconsolable ward’s pain.

And likewise, despite her young age, Violet McGraw delivers an equally complex performance as the lost and devastated Katie. Grief is a beast with many faces; Sadness is only a small part of it. Accompanying the sensation is also anger, confusion, and fear, something which M3GAN’s script smartly addresses and McGraw effortlessly exudes. She can portray unfathomable melancholy, childlike wonder, and violent, untempered rage, sometimes all within the same scene. Her dialogue feels a bit forced at times, falling strictly into ‘kids don’t talk that way’ territory, but I’m willing to blame that more on the screenplay than on her delivery. And, in fairness, the film goes out of its way to establish that Katie is a homeschooled, sheltered kid as it is, so a bit of weirdness is perfectly in character.

Sorry, homeschool kids, but you’re a bizarre bunch, and you should know this.

But of course, the centerpiece of the film is M3GAN herself. A delightful combination of physical and vocal performances, from onset actress Amie Donald and voice actor Jenna Davis, the sinister doll – much like her child counterpart – runs the gamut of cute and quirky to creepy and genuinely menacing. She’s an AI in the vein of those Isaac Asimov classics, beholden to laws designed to make her safe and yet clever enough to find loopholes around them or to circumvent them through sheer brute force. She’s hilarious in a dry, matter-of-fact sort of way, and her artificial, modulated cheer clashes wonderfully with her aggressive, often feral body language. I definitely foresee the character becoming something of a pop-culture phenomenon, and look forward to all the inevitable M3GAN Halloween costumes later this year.

And yet in spite of all this the great performances, the kinetic direction, and the snappy script – I was expecting something a bit… more? With as bonkers and self-aware as Malignant was, I had similar preconceptions of how M3GAN might conduct itself throughout its brisk runtime. As much as I enjoyed the film for what it was, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have gone a bit further with its concept. Scene by scene, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some kind of shocking, centerpiece moment, something that would kick the film into high-gear and deliver on the batshit, jaw-dropping lunacy of its predecessor. Essentially, this film’s equivalent of the jail scene from Malignant. But no, M3GAN stays relatively grounded all the way through the end, despite its heightened, sci-fi narrative elements. Nothing happens in this film that you wouldn’t expect, if you have even a passing familiarity with the genre. And for those of you, again, that have seen the Child’s Play remake, you’ve pretty much already seen this film, too.

But to be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By keeping the plot within a healthy arms-length of the starting point, both in terms of narrative escalation and tone, it allows M3GAN to ultimately feel much more intimate and small-scale, a definite strength when you consider that, at its core, it’s not about a killer robot doll: It’s about a traumatized little girl and her response to unimaginable grief. To this end, the film’s decision to stay within a reasonable boundary of credulity works in its favor to deliver a much more emotionally satisfying and endearing tale than it otherwise could have been had M3GAN spent the duration of the film doing TikTok dances while mowing down mobs of police.

As a result of M3GAN’s sense of restraint, the film eschews all-out spectacle for a much more well-rounded experience, and I frankly think, in hindsight, that it’s all the better for it.

Go see this film in theaters while you can, if anything just to siphon some cash away from the money-printing machine that is Avatar 2. Also, because I want half a dozen sequels with M3GAN, and they ain’t gonna pay for themselves.

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