BY NADYA ELLERHORST
I’ve never been an avid horror movie-watcher, but after viewing a trailer wherein a lifelike doll does a choreographed dance and proceeds to snatch the blade from a paper cutter for use as a weapon, I suddenly found the recently released “M3GAN” oddly intriguing. And post-viewing, the film has given me plenty of food for thought about some of society’s worst nightmares.
When Gemma (Allison Williams) comes into guardianship of her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), following Cady’s parents’ tragic deaths, the robotic toy-designing aunt is unprepared. She barely mourns her relatives’ death, instead focusing on the demands of her boss, David (Ronny Chieng), to further innovate her company’s latest toy. Gemma initially resorts to unlimited screen time to take care of Cady. She soon introduces Cady to her mechanic magnum opus, M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis), and a strong emotional attachment between girl and girl-like robot forms. Both the bond and M3GAN’s capabilities are strong enough that Gemma’s company wants to unveil this toy to replace all toys on the market.
The sugary-voiced M3GAN truly does it all. She compliments your outfit! She draws your portrait! She tells you fun facts! She annihilates any perceived threat to your safety!
As the film progresses, M3GAN takes her command to protect a still-grieving Cady a little too seriously, transforming into less of a friendly Baymax and more into something along the lines of the Terminator’s wide-eyed, vengeful niece. All the while, her artificial intelligence — and violent cunning — only grows stronger.
As someone whose childhood eyes were perpetually bombarded with neon-laden, unnaturally lit commercials for gadgets like Fijit Friends, FurReal Friends and other robotic devices probably intended to replace living friends — the same type of commercials and toys the film openly parodies — I walked away from “M3GAN” especially impressed with its biting commentary on the toy industry. Indeed, even to Gemma, the toys of the past (and their original packaging) are collector’s objects that belong anywhere but within a child’s reach, and she sets her sights on creating something intended to eliminate the need for any other toy with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Despite this focus on toys, the film targets more than just fun and games. “M3GAN” addresses the pervasive, sector-spanning desire to constantly innovate products and outpace any and all competitors in the process. It likewise brings the intersection of screen time and parenting into the conversation, criticizing the use of gadgets as pacifiers and highlighting the potential harms of the deep emotional attachments we can form with animated — but ultimately non-living — things.
The whole concept of “M3GAN” is especially interesting to me because it’s fundamentally about a doll, one of the most feared horror movie subjects known to cinema-goers, but I think that “M3GAN” is ushering in something that goes beyond possession of an otherwise lifeless plaything. M3GAN is self-aware. She is self-improving. She is designed to be the perfect companion and will do anything — anything — for you, executing such actions based on her own decision-making capabilities instead of another evil third party’s. It’s one of our most entrenched fears with a 21st century twist: the corruption of something meant to comfort us, with said corruption facilitated by human-designed technology.
Admittedly, while the plot of “M3GAN” effectively illustrates the havoc from a machine taking what it’s programmed to do way too far, the film itself was not spared from moments I found more ridiculous than spine-tingling and where I really wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or shuddering (at one point, M3GAN sings “Titanium,” and then there’s that dance I mentioned). There’s also lengthy scenes in the film that make no secret that some sort of jump scare will – or, much to the audience’s aggravation, won’t – happen.
Though just falling short of an explicit cautionary tale with its simultaneous acknowledgement that robotic technology can be used for good or, at the very least, lead a harmless existence, this disturbing film takes a variety of (frankly valid) worries our particular generation grapples with and makes them novel, with the addition of one of the most timelessly terrifying things of all: dolls.