When horror movies are perfect, they transcend genre and express profound insights about our deepest fears. From Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and the loss of individuality in a consumerist society or Kubrick’s The Shining and the psychic and physical violence family members perpetuate against loved ones, horror allows viewers to wrestle with internal terror. Combining disturbing images, social satire, and a little humor is the formula for success. By those metrics, Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN has the chance to attain cult status.
The image of the frightening doll is a bit of a horror cliche, albeit a genuinely creepy one. From Chucky to Annabelle, they elicit a disconcerting nostalgia from childhood. M3GAN rises above those films not by mere gore or jump-scares but by showing the dread of how enmeshed tech has become in our lives—a specter haunting us by raising our children.
The plot is straightforward; a young girl named Cady and her parents are in a tragic car accident, leaving her an orphan. Her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) takes custody of Cady and has to adapt to being a parent overnight. Gemma is the quintessential millennial career-oriented woman, down to the beige decor in an expensive, empty home and pronounced singlehood and loneliness.
She’s a successful robotics engineer for a giant toy company run by CEO David Lin and played hilariously by stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng. Gemma’s clearly not cut out for motherhood as she explains to Cady that her wall of vintage toys are actually collectible and can’t be played with. In a spasm of Victor Frankensteinesque fervor, she crafts a robotic companion for her niece called the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short. Cady immediately bonds deeply with M3GAN, before things go murderously wrong.
Over two decades, Blumhouse Productions has dominated the wide-release horror market. Their risky, inventive films – including Get Out, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity – have drawn massive audiences for their ability to translate contemporary fears into terrifying stories. The model is simple: make small-budget movies with wide releases, find promising young directors, and give them complete creative control.
The movie hinges on whether they could pull off the doll; it’s one of the best pieces of practical effects you’ll ever see in a movie. Eschewing CGI, they turned to Weta FX to craft animatronics and a brilliant physical performance by twelve-year-old ballerina Amie Donald. Her robotic gait is spine-chilling. Megan’s primary function is to protect Cady, and she begins to utilize increasingly bloody ways to murder perceived threats.
M3GAN could have just been a well-made thrill ride, but something is disconcerting about the film much deeper than just an evil AI-controlled doll. It explicitly raises the question of how much parenting we’ve handed over to machines. Early on, Gemma gives an iPad to her niece so she can finish some work; Cady’s deceased parents had strict screen time limits, but her aunt doesn’t share those concerns. She gleefully pitches M3GAN as a tool that can handle reading bedtime stories and reminding kids to flush the toilet so parents can get back to important things like listening to podcasts.
We’ve all seen it, the toddlers staring blankly at iPads in restaurants, the kids quietly playing games on their parents’ phones at parties, barely interacting with each other. Balancing screen time is confounding for parents but it’s worth noting the billionaires who created this technology almost universally don’t let their kids use it. Unfortunately it seems most people are willing to blithely sacrifice their progeny to our digital gods.
M3GAN asks the painful question: When we outsource parenting to technology, are we creating horrors worse than anything Hollywood can conjure?