Bot Life

A super-smart android doll makes life interesting—and then dangerous—in this spunky horror comedy

M3GAN
Starring Alison Williams & Violet McGraw
Directed by Gerard Johnstone
R

In theaters Friday, Jan. 6

Back in 1963, Telly Savalas starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Living Doll,” playing a father who buys a talking doll for his daughter. But the chatty plaything becomes a pest, then a threat, telling him, “My name is Talky Tina—and I’m going to kill you.”

“Artificial intelligence” wasn’t such a hot topic in the early 1960s, an era long before smartphones, computerized appliances, interactive toys, Siri searches and self-driving cars. Today we’re surrounded by things that “think,” processing information much, much faster than the human brain.

In M3GAN, a high-tech robotic doll takes over the lives of a young girl and her aunt. Alison Williams stars as Gemma, a computerized toy designer in Seattle who brings her latest prototype home as a companion to her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), whose parents have died in a tragic road accident. Now Gemma is Cady’s official guardian, and she’s stretched thin with her demanding job and the overwhelming duties of being a new parent. M3GAN (it stands for Model 3 Generative Android) can do a lot of things, for golly-gee sure—but can she take the place of a loving mother?

M3GAN and Cady bond almost instantly. “She’s not a toy!” Cady insists, and indeed, the lifelike doll becomes Cady’s companion, best friend and playmate. She sings, she dances, she reads storybooks in the voices of the characters. She can “read” a room like, well, like a computerized android who knows what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.

And she becomes a fierce protector. Bullying schoolboys, vicious dogs, meddlesome next-door neighbors, corporate males who want to control her—well, M3GAN’s got your number.

This spry, supple horror comedy nimbly slices into our ever-increasing reliance on things that aren’t human but that have become “essential” parts of everyday living. It’s tense and intense and scary without being gory, and its well-placed humor helps lighten the mood of eventual, inevitable murder and mayhem as M3GAN stands up for Cady, and for herself.

M3GAN becomes a sensation and makes Gemma, her creator, a superstar. She’s constructed of titanium and circuitry, with a rubbery silicone coating, but she’s made of pure gold, a sure contender to corner and crush the market for the toy company that commissioned her. (Even though we’re told she’ll retail for “less than a Tesla.”) But M3GAN has other ideas. And when things turn dark and ominous, as you know they will, the movie becomes a gleefully freakish joyride as we wait for her make her next maliciously nasty move, whether it’s bolting on all fours like a wild animal, weaponizing a nail gun or calmly pursuing a soon-to-be victim down a blood-red hallway, wielding a machete.

The film’s stylish horror-show cred is impressive. Williams, a former star of the TV series Girls, made a splash in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed terror parable Get Out, and young McGraw got her start in the streaming series The Haunting of Hill House. One of the producers is Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse franchise gave us Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious and Malignant.

There are respectful nods to the bountiful lineage of other scarifying movies that have come before, from Frankenstein to Chucky and Ex Machina, with touches of Stephen King and even The Evil Dead. As M3GAN mounts her reign of monstrously fun movie terror, the film raises some serious existential issues, most notably mortality itself as M3GAN comforts Cady over the loss of her parents. What is death, exactly? What happens after you die? And, in M3GAN’s case, how can you possibly “kill” something that was never alive to begin with?

It may make you think about what, exactly, Alexia is doing in your home when you’re away. Or if your smartphone is smarter than you are. Just how much do Google and Facebook and Amazon, or your Mac or PC, really know about what you’re doing online?

But if you see Telly Savalas stomping through your house and heading into the basement with a blowtorch…run!

—Neil Pond

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