She was… an American Girl
DIRECTED BY GERARD JOHNSTONE/2023
With all its cynicism-filled mentions of pre-programming and faux-randomizing in technology, one could be forgiven for assuming that the new horror thriller M3GAN would not be such a predictable routine. Bringing the venerable homicidal doll concept into the perpetually Wi-Fi and A.I.-obsessed 21st century, M3GAN has no shortage of idea snippets in its synthetic head as it goes through the motions in its PG-13-horror safe zone.
Along the way we are teased with notions regarding childhood device addiction, social services overlording, technology gone toyetic, work addiction, internalized trauma, overbearing bosses, the façade of product promotion, and that old classic, fear of new and current technology. All worthy themes to dig into, insofar as they’re major components of our world. Unfortunately, exactly none of them take hold or are acted upon.
The most frustrating thing about M3GAN is that once upon a time, there seems to have been a genuinely warped, interesting, and even unsettling film in all of this. That film does not exist. Instead, it was decided that M3GAN could rack up more traction playing to younger people, almost as though the target audience shifted from the age of its grown-up star, Allison Williams, to its kid star, Violet McGraw. Not the best play, Blumhouse. As the movie ended, my fourteen-year-old daughter immediately shrugged a dismissive shrug while predicting that M3GAN will probably have a great opening weekend and then get twenty sequels while declaring it “meh, with a few isolated funny bits”. I boldly predict that every sequel will see the modified “E” in the title gain more horizontal bars until it visually can’t be done anymore. Eventually, the M3GAN doll will have to square off against Chucky.
The film’s pre-release publicity has done a great job of cultivating intrigue and fascination with the title doll’s close-but-no-cigar plastic lifelikeness and her TikTok-ready singing moments. The songs are out of left field, M3GAN’s equivalent of a Vaudeville comedian desperately resorting to tap dancing when all his jokes are failing. The degree to which the wheels of the familiar are spinning in this film is disappointing. This even as we are often left to wonder what we’re supposed to be rooting for or against. Director Gerard Johnstone has a good if conventional visual sense and seems to know how to work with even very young actors, as McGraw is required to play a lot of emotionally heaviness and does so very well. But Johnstone needs to rein in his story, as it’s a disparate bunch of parts on the workbench that fail to assemble into anything memorable.
In the first minutes of M3GAN, Cady (McGraw) is suddenly orphaned when her parents are killed in a car accident. Cady goes to live with her late mom’s sister, Gemma (Williams), a single up-and-coming tech wiz/workaholic. The lone wolf Gemma may have limited relational skills and zero knowledge or interest in what a child in mourning actually needs in day-to-day life, but she does work for a major toy company creating cool (or irritating, depending on your age) interactive playthings like furry virtual pets.
On the side, Gemma has been developing M3GAN (whose name is an acronym for some gobbledygook), a revolutionary new android designed to be every child’s best friend. Specifically, she’s inspired by Cady’s loneliness, and Gemma’s own desire to get the kid out of her hair. The arrangement looks promising to a point, until M3GAN becomes overprotective and starts killing people.
Despite any ironic allure that glimpses of the title character singing and/or dancing may have, those moments are just nonsense. Amusing in the moment, perhaps, but absolutely disposable. The greatest strength of M3GAN is truly M3GAN herself. (Itself?) Played terrifically by Amie Donald and chirpishly voiced by YouTuber Jenna Davis, the American Girl doll gone haywire lives up to the promise of her (its?) ominously plastic glare displayed on the posters. Too bad it takes for friggin’ ever for the doll to finally get built.
The movie on the whole feels like a patchwork of pared-down ideas and tempered horror possibilities. The relatively small body count is composed entirely of victims that the screenplay goes out of its way to telegraph just how awful they are, implying that they deserve their ridiculous fates. The film’s many nods to robot-centric classics RoboCop and Silent Running make sense on a very surface level, even as they only remind us of how much better those movies are.
There’s still some assembly required for M3GAN, although it’s now out of the box. There are, however, plenty of thematic play left over for the inevitable line of sequels. But for this initial release, just beneath whatever compelling surface it demonstrates, M3GAN is a lot of trouble.