It’s not an exaggeration to say that the mainstreaming of new horror cinema in the last twenty years is at least partially driven by Australians, with James Wan (Malignant) and Leigh Whannell (The Invisible Man) throwing everything on the bathroom floor in 2004 and building from there.
Wan’s fascinating career continues with a story credit on M3GAN, an Antipodean collaboration with New Zealand born director Gerard Johnstone (TV’s The New Legends of Monkey) and American writer Akela Cooper (TV’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds). For the low, low, price of $12 million, you can get a dancing robo girl with a lust for blood – but not too much blood, because you can clearly see the seams where her punches were pulled.
After a car accident orphans Cady (Violet McGraw, The Christmas Mystery), she is adopted by her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams, Horizon Line), a robotics engineer at a toy company. To help Cady adjust, Gemma creates a robot friend called M3gan (Amie Donald, TV’s Sweet Tooth, and Jenna Davis, TV’s Maggie), whom she plans to merchandise. It soon becomes apparent that M3gan’s programming tells her she must protect Cady at all costs – and it’s M3gan herself who sets the parameters.
From the beginning, Johnstone makes it clear that it’s okay to laugh at M3GAN: the broad satire with which it opens means that it’s safe to accept the winks thrown at the audience throughout. The movie is often genuinely and intentionally funny, and not just in a memetic way; M3GAN utilises the unexpected and logical non-sequiturs and combines them with genre hallmarks to produce a legitimately left field sci-fi horror film.
The audience is always going to be smarter than the movie’s characters in a case like this, even if they can’t create killer robots in their garage (or perhaps because they can’t) – it’s clear to us from the beginning that M3gan herself is a terrible idea. Donald, Davis and puppeteer Paul Lewis (TV’s Sweet Tooth) team up with W?t? FX to create a girl figure that completely bypasses the uncanny valley in order to become an unholy monster even before she starts doing something wrong; at no point in the movie are you able to think that there’s someone real embodying the character.
Williams is surprisingly effective as Gemma, earning a through line about learning to care for something more than work and profit margins, conveying non-verbal unease no matter what’s happening in her life. She has an awkward rapport with McGraw, but this is textual, and the third act breakthrough moment drips of neither irony or sentiment.
As a director, Johnstone has a genius sense of symmetry, introducing a jump scare relatively early in the movie and inverting same to showcase M3gan’s first steps into the overtly sinister. He has transformed Auckland into a Seattle that’s desperately in need of Frasier Crane, and he knows how to combine terror with laughter. The only problem is that M3gan feels like she’s keen for murder and mayhem once she finally and inevitably cuts loose, but she’s not allowed to. M3GAN is a squirmy movie, but the outcome is never quite as bloody as it should be. It’s understandable that, given M3gan’s stupid little dances, they wanted to corner the youth market — but the American ratings board needs to reconsider the amount that they’re willing to show. M3GAN is one movie where less is definitely not more. This is a movie where a robot rips off a boy’s ear: it needs to go a little bit farther than it does. Johnstone does have this down to an art, yet sometimes art can stand to be a bit more red.
M3GAN is a fun movie that would be considered a romp had Johnstone been able to retain some of the grand guignol that it desperately cries out for. Without that touch of sadism it can’t quite be all that it can be, but it’s still a good time — the eternally classic story of woman versus ersatz little girl fighting for control of a real little girl’s affection, replete with a credible character arc for its female lead.