One hot topic in science fiction at the moment is making new friends – by which I mean building those new friends from metal and plastic. Children have had robotic, artificially intelligent companions in dramas (After Yang), cartoons (Ron’s Gone Wrong) and novels (Klara and the Sun) recently, and now it’s happened again in a fun little horror film produced by two of the genre’s leading lights, James Wan and James Blum. M3GAN is hardly a classic, but you can bet that it will spawn several sequels and a thousand Halloween costumes: the title character’s waxen face, long blonde hair, cream dress and stripey pussycat bow seem to have been designed not with plausibility in mind, but with how easily they can be recreated by fans at fancy-dress parties.
The film opens with its best scene, a satirical advert for a Furby-like line of toys called PurRpetual Petz. Produced by an American company named Funki – and definitely not Hasbro – each toy is “a pet that lives longer than you do”. But a rival company is soon selling a rip-off alternative that’s even better: “Their butts change colour to show their mood!” One of Funki’s engineers, Gemma (Allison Williams from Girls and Get Out), is given the job of fighting back with a cut-price PurRpetual Pet. But Gemma believes that the way to beat the competition is to innovate: specifically, she wants Funki to manufacture life-sized robotic girls that will learn to have proper conversations with their owners. Her name for this exciting new invention? The Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short.
An extra incentive is that Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law have just been killed in a car accident, and she is stuck looking after their orphaned daughter Cady (Violet McGraw), despite having no maternal instincts. She decides that if she can get a M3GAN prototype up and running, then the robot (Amie Donald, with the voice of Jenna Davis) will keep Cady company in their swanky suburban bungalow while she’s away at work. After all, what could possibly be dangerous about a lonely, traumatised child sharing a room with a superhumanly strong, experimental android?
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know exactly what’s dangerous about it – and even if you haven’t seen the trailer, you’ll have a pretty shrewd idea. Bolted together from bits of Frankenstein and Child’s Play, M3GAN is a generic slasher movie that doesn’t introduce any novel twists to the familiar proposition that robots might go haywire and start hacking people to pieces. The big-eyed, unsmiling android is so creepy that there is nothing surprising about her becoming a pint-sized Terminator. And the film’s writer, Akela Cooper, and director, Gerard Johnstone, aren’t subtle about setting up what they’re going to pay off later. All you have to see is one shot of a car in the snow, or a neighbour’s dog, or an obnoxious schoolboy, and you can predict what is going to happen in the next half hour.
The pay-offs are enjoyably nasty, though. The android makes a point of torturing and murdering people in imaginatively sadistic ways, and the contrast between its girlish look and its homicidal tendencies is good for a few delightfully tense and gory sequences. The satirical wit in that opening advert resurfaces here and there, too. Funki’s CEO enthuses that children everywhere will love their robo-buddies: “Even ones who don’t have dead parents!” But in general M3GAN is one of those films about artificial intelligence which could have done with more actual intelligence. However amusing the killings might be, the dialogue in between them is clunky, the product placement is glaring, and the plotting is lazy. For instance, Gemma tells M3GAN to keep Cady safe from harm, which might justify a certain amount of violence, from the android’s point of view. But there is no logical reason why it should suddenly become a singing, dancing serial killer – except that that’s what always happens in films like this one.
Directed by: Gerard Johnstone
Starring: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Jenna Davis, Amie Donald
Film length: 1h 42m
M3GAN also feels oddly old-fashioned, considering its contemporary topic: it could be based on a short story written by Stephen King or Ira Levin in the 1970s, or by Ray Bradbury a decade or two earlier, and then filmed in the early 2000s, when Simone and A.I. Artificial Intelligence came out, and when Furbies were the world’s hottest new toy. Partly it feels old-fashioned because of the robot’s deliberately retro styling – which, again, seems to have more to do with its viability as a fancy-dress costume than anything else – but it’s mainly because the film doesn’t acknowledge the latest developments in computing. The android is presented as an incredible technological leap, but that’s hardly the case in 2023. It’s also presented as being a terrifying monster, whereas it’s actually no more threatening than Michael Myers was in Halloween back in 1978.
The chilling fact is that the real world has overtaken the one in the film. If you read any article about how AI is creeping into our lives these days, then M3GAN’s killing spree will seem quaintly innocuous in comparison.
M3GAN is released in US cinemas on 6 January and UK cinemas on 13 January.
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