Creepy killer robots can add a new name to the horror genre rolls
In writer-director Alex Garland’s 2014 science fiction-horror film, Ex Machina, a tech-bro billionaire entrepreneur/inventor, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), with delusions of grandeur, attempts to create the “perfect woman,” a self-aware, sentient simulacrum in a robotic body. As always with this particular thematically-driven sub-genre (e.g., “tampering with God’s work or biological/evolutionary certainties”), Bateman discovers that technological advances can be — to quote Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk classic Blade Runner — “either a benefit or a hazard.” To his surprise, Bateman’s autonomous creation ultimately falls into the personal “hazard” category, and control over her autonomy proves to be not only elusive, but futile.
While Ex Machina doubled as a salient critique of masculinity and its discontents director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) and writer Akela Cooper’s (Malignant, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds) deliver something both familiar and unfamiliar in their first onscreen collaboration, M3GAN. M3GAN focuses its cautionary critique on the uses and abuses of modern technology and tech-distorted parental modeling, all while wrapping said critique in meme-worthy horror-comedy conventions.
Working from an idea Cooper developed with filmmaker James Wan (Malignant, Aquaman, The Conjuring), Johnstone and Cooper literally embody their critique in the form of a fully ambulatory, self-motivated, artificially intelligent doll, M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android), the brainchild of genius roboticist, Gemma (Allison Williams, Get Out, Girls). Initially a side project started without the explicit approval of Gemma’s arrogant, self-entitled boss David (Ronny Chieng), developing M3GAN into a working prototype gains a renewed sense of urgency when Gemma becomes the legal guardian and central caregiver to her newly orphaned preteen niece, Cady (Violet McGraw).
Single by choice, Gemma lives a carefully curated, well-ordered existence, making the unexpected arrival of Cady an obstacle to overcome rather than a call to reconfigure her life with Cady at the center. Uncritically seeing M3GAN as the answer to all of her problems (specifically Cady and how Cady fits into Gemma’s hectic, fulfilling personal life), Gemma rushes to restart the dormant M3GAN project. Once the M3GAN prototype is back online, Gemma pairs her to a primary user — Cady. In short order, M3GAN becomes a substitute caregiver, friend, and confidante to the affection- and attention-starved Cady. In turn, their pairing creates the sense of normalcy and security Gemma thinks Cady needs.
While M3GAN, per the rules of science-fiction/horror, eventually goes awry, taking her directive to protect Cady from all harm, physical and mental, to blood- and gore-soaked extremes (PG-13 rating allowing, of course), the most disturbing, chilling scene in M3GAN doesn’t involve one of the title character’s pint-sized rampages in the second half of the film. Instead, it’s a mid-film one involving Gemma, eager to impress David and the company’s executive board in the hopes of obtaining approval to mass produce M3GAN duplicates for the high-end consumer market. Gemma deliberately dismisses Cady’s visible emotional distress for a show-and-tell that places the company’s executives on one side of a one-way mirror and Cady and M3GAN inside a children’s playroom on the other side.
As Cady bares the contents of her heart to M3GAN in full view of strangers, expressing her seemingly inconsolable anguish at the loss of her parents and, by implication, Gemma’s debilitating neglect of her psychological well-being, M3GAN steps up and in to offer soothing, supportive words. In that single moment, Cady’s abject, personal grief becomes commodified, a marketing device used to “sell” M3GAN to the company’s board and later, cash-rich consumers willing to pay $10,000 for one of M3GAN’s “sisters.”
Gemma doesn’t see or acknowledge Cady’s distress until it’s almost too late, with M3GAN inevitably posing a danger to their physical well-being while also doubling as a conduit for their unresolved feelings towards each other. M3GAN becomes a stand-in for Cady’s roiling emotions, striking out at agents of an unjust, cruel world, while Gemma, unprepared for the demands of motherhood, attempts to pass off Cady’s real needs to a robotic companion. That doesn’t make Gemma the villain, but it does help to explain how M3GAN more often than not succeeds as straight-up horror with moments of levity and humor and as an unexpectedly moving, even poignant grief narrative.
M3GAN wouldn’t come close to working as well as it does without the creepy, artificially intelligent doll at its center. Brought to virtual life through a combination of live-action (Amie Donald under an animatronic mask, Jenna Davis on voice duties) and some minor CGI augmentation, M3GAN is all but assured a post-screening life via cosplay (a clever marketing campaign sent out a small army of M3GAN clones out in the real world), other media, and — in a surprise to practically no one on either side of the screen — a sequel and, based on box-office and streaming results, a franchise that in time might come close to equaling the pop-culture staying power of her second-closest cinematic predecessor, Chucky from the still ongoing Child’s Play franchise.
M3GAN opens theatrically on Friday, January 6th, via Universal Pictures.