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The Doll That Rocks the Cradle: “M3GAN”

In M3gan, a variation on the Victor Frankenstein story updated by Akela Cooper (Malignant) and James Wan (the Insidious and Saw franchises, and perhaps any other contemporary movie involving sharp objects) for the Alexa generation, Allison Williams plays Gemma, a myopic robotics engineer in Seattle. While her company, a big toy manufacturer in Seattle markets interactive little toys known as PurrPetual Petz, Gemma is on the path to more ambitious ideas when her sister and brother-in-law are killed in the kind of snowy head-on car collision that only happens in the movies, suddenly leaving her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw),  in her inattentive care.

Barely taking time to adjust to her newfound role as guardian, let alone any time to grieve, Gemma returns to a secret project she’d been working on with several colleagues (Brian Jordan Alvarez and Jen Van Epps), a lifelike “Kid Sister/ My Buddy”-type doll imbued with A.I. technology that will befriend children and help fill a void created by inattentive, overextended parents and caretakers. They’ve called it M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android. Gemma isn’t maternal, but she is mercenary, and her niece is just the focus group she needs to pole-vault to the top of the food chain at her company, run by a kinda-sorta imperious CEO named David (Ronnie Chieng).

Gemma brings M3GAN home, partly to relieve her from constant care and to ignore the difficulty the two have bonding, and gives the robot permission to protect Cady from “emotional and physical harm,” a subjective assignment. But she and her colleagues have neglected to build parental controls or a code of conduct into the device, so M3GAN, following in the steps of Jinx in SpaceCamp, takes her instructions literally and defends her charge – to the death.

The logic of M3GAN allows her to be a non-villainous villain. In protecting Cady from danger, the doll is programmed to learn and refine her skills. Enabled, I suppose, by the cloud, she can outwit her human companions. Eventually, though, her robotic behavior becomes more punitive that protective, and M3Gan resembles an amalgam of Child’s Play’s Chucky, Deadly Friend’s BB, and Payton from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Brief, nasty encounters with a neighbor with a dog (Lori Dungey) and a bullying stranger (Jack Cassidy) very quickly turn violent. Eventually, the initial logic wears off, however, and M3GAN transitions into a blithe killing machine, pursuing a few victims that are more about taking turf than protecting her charge.

Director Gerard Johnstone maintains an even balance between horror and humor – the more dangerous the title character gets, the more yuks the film gets in. (M3GAN, getting ready to dispatch someone: “This is the part where you run.”) But it’s too pragmatic to be camp. It’s clear that Cooper and Wan are no less savvy than David, and they know that a doll, dressed like a Karen-in-waiting and singing “Titanium” or tickling the ivories with “Toy Soldiers” has real meme value.

Thematically, M3GAN aims higher than its reach. The film brims with commentary about how the conveniences of modern technology blur ethical boundaries – part of the M3GAN doll sales pitch is that having a doll babysit the children will allow parents to have more time focusing on themselves, an odd concept, and one followed by a scene of Gemma soothing herself in front of her laptop, alone) – but it offers no real conclusion on the matter, nor about the equal and opposite dangers of helicopter parenting. (This is hampered further by a lack of development for both Cady and Gemma.) M3GAN is further undercut, if you will, by its PG-13 rating. As slasher movies go, this one’s body count is relatively low, and the kills that do come happen quickly, and to victims who’ve only shown a soupcon of true villainy.

Technically, however, the film’s portrayal of M3GAN slaps. With Australian actress Amie Donald doing motion capture work and Jenna David providing the voice, the robot truly seems real. The film also provides  Terminator-like view of M3GAN’s perspective, with her camera scanning the environment and clocking her subjects’ emotions, making everything subjective seemed doomed to objectification.

Like a Black Mirror episode, M3Gan offers a fun cautionary tale about the ever-present threats our modern-day machines wield. Will artificial intelligence eventually be our real undoing? Could be. Warning seems fair, too, that we haven’t seen the last of M3GAN onscreen either.