The title character of “M3GAN,” a sly and somewhat clever satirical sci-fi horror film, is a pretty creepy android doll from hell that doesn’t look like any other horror movie game. Her soft soft features – oversized light gray eyes, smooth alabaster skin, a face that smiles, pouts and signals approval or disapproval – are enhanced with a heavy layer of digital effects, but there’s a real actor named Amy Donald, and it’s this. Helps keep the humanoid in its own uncanny valley. You could say that M3GAN, as a character, achieves puppetry. He seems completely fake and completely real at the same time.
Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics engineer, works for a funky toy company, where she spends her time designing gizmos like Perpetualpetz, a programmed fuzzball that eats, poops and makes snarky comments. But Gemma has bigger dreams. He hijacks $100,000 of the company’s money to create the M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android) prototype, giving him a metal skeleton, silicon skin, lasers, radar, and a highly advanced artificial intelligence that allows him to talk. The world’s funniest Siri companion. (Her voice, a sweet and knowingly innocent girl-next-door coo, is provided by Jenna Davis.)
If “M3GAN” had a whisper of subtlety, it would tease out the issue of whether M3GAN has a mind of its own. But the movie shows you right from the start that he definitely does. With her great encyclopedic knowledge of everything, combined with her ability to respond to you like a surrogate parent, a soulful bestie, a self-actualizing therapist, a scheming mean girl, or a musical songbird who will serenade you if you’re down. With a soft-rock rendition of “Titanium,” M3GAN is like HAL 9000 meets a lost Olsen sister Chucky. When the action starts to heat up, she’s invested with a quality of unseen malevolence, like one of the Diane Arbus twins crossed with the Terminator from “The Shining.” If things don’t go his way, he’ll get very angry, but he’ll do it with determination, as when he tells the bully who tormented Caddy, “This is the part where you run.”
“M3GAN,” as you may have gathered, is overstuffed with pop-culture role models, but in its trivial way it’s a subversive genre film, with a healthy sense of its own absurdity. Movies released in the first week of January share a quality of utter disposability, but “M3GAN” almost feels like it could be a cult film, the sort of thriller that’s built a small but dedicated following and perhaps spawned a sequel or two. You don’t have to take the movie seriously to enjoy it as a highly kitsch cautionary tale for an age when technology, especially for kids, is becoming the new companion.
Williams, who is an executive producer on the film (its two high-powered producer-auteurs are James Wan and Jason Bloom), invests Gemma with a winning, sometimes unacknowledged hyperraciality that makes her the film’s heroine and rather innocent digital. – Age Dr. Frankenstein. Gemma, a robotics obsessive, is ordered by her boss to abandon the M3GAN project. But the film opens with a (imagined) disaster that forces him to go ahead with it in secret. His younger niece, Cady (Violet McGrath), is on a ski trip with her parents when, in a freak accident, their car is run over by an avalanche.
Gemma takes custody of the newly orphaned girl, and while she seems utterly clueless about what someone Caddy’s age might need (like, say, a bedtime story), her failure as a caretaker is part of the film’s satirical design. “M3GAN” takes place in a world — namely, ours — where parents bemoan how much screen time they give their kids, persuasion anyway, because it feels both easy and inevitable. The film says that we are already letting computer technology raise our children. M3GAN is the logical culmination of the trend of the willowy programmed companion who always says the perfect thing.
Once Cady places her fingerprint on M3GAN’s palm, which automatically programs the doll to be her special companion, their relationship makes everything else seem monotonous, at least to Cady. The film parallels their budding friendship with Gemma’s efforts to turn M3GAN into a new product. He places Cady and M3GAN in a playroom behind one-way glass, using them to demonstrate the toy’s amazing abilities to his boss (played with a riveting short fuse by Ronnie Chiang). He was sold, and began planning the marketing rollout of this revolutionary new toy, which would sell for $10,000 a pop.
But the more they plan, the more M3GAN, on his own, gets up to mischief, starting a conflict with Gemma’s next-door neighbor (Laurie Dungy) and her dog. M3GAN is programmed to have “emergent abilities”, which means that the more people it interacts with, the more it learns how to do it. This certainly applies to his fighting style, a sort of stiff-limbed fast zombie dance that leaves nothing in its wake. At a certain point, you realize that “M3GAN” has become a movie about a killer doll who knows how to use a nail gun.
Nevertheless, the way M3GAN talks has a tendency to be intelligent. He has a bon mot for every occasion; Even when he’s mad, he’s mastered the art of corporate euphemism. “M3GAN” fits into a tradition of monster-doll movies going back to the Karen Black episodes of “Trilogy of Terror” (1975) and the “Annabelle” trilogy (produced by Wan), but has its own fun throwaway relevance. The film’s real satirical target is all of us – or, at least, those who now think of the mirror offered by artificial intelligence as a real form of interaction.