Yes, technology run amuck has become a bit of a tired sci-fi trope, but rarely has it been seen through such a darkly comic eye as in Gerard Johnstone’s “M3GAN,” a film with its tongue firmly tucked into its acerbic cheek, providing far more dark laughs than scary moments. Briskly told and sleekly executed, the thriller is aided greatly by its combination of practical and digital effects which give the titular creature a sense of realism that’s appropriately unnerving. Yet, where it varies from its fellow robot/doll on the loose prototypes – “The Terminator,” “Child’s Play” – is that its true focus is on bad parenting, putting the generation that’s become far too dependent on technology to raise their offspring under the microscope
Tragically orphaned in a predictable prologue involving inexperienced drivers, a blinding snowstorm and an out-of-control snowplow, young Cady (Violet McGraw) finds herself under the care of her workaholic Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). She simply doesn’t have time to care for her niece as she’s too busy working at Funki Toys under the shortsighted, bullying influence of her boss David (Ronny Chieng). While he’s badgering her to update a robot pet, he wants to roll out, Gemma has grander plans. She’s created a four-foot android that can interact with humans, learning with each interaction. Dubbed M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android), on a whim she decides to program her invention as a caregiver, minding Cady, so she can be left alone to work.
The experiment works all too well, as Cady quickly bonds with her automated companion, while M3GAN evolves much faster than anticipated, eventually being able to predict her young charge’s behavior. Of course, this too-good-to-be-true scenario cannot last, and before you know it, the ‘droid starts taking her commands of protecting Cady a bit too literally. Bullying, verbally and physically, or any other sort of abusive behavior towards her is not recommended, unless you want to end up on a cold slab in the morgue.
There’s a lock-step nature to Akela Cooper’s script but the humor teased out of it separates it from other genre entries. Johnstone lets us know none involved are taking this seriously and the wry approach helps the film go down easy. Still, there’s enough intelligence at play so the director doesn’t have to lean too hard on the physical gags or ironic jokes. As M3GAN gains awareness and her emerging capabilities, the logic Cooper employs so her horrific character can have the upper hand is quite clever. The film doesn’t insult our intelligence, while a third-act surprise doesn’t come off as manipulative, it being wisely and quickly set up early on.
As for M3GAN, she is quite something. 12-year-old Amie Donald, an award-winning dancer from New Zealand, provides the real-life template, initially moving stiffly but eventually twirling, swiveling, and somersaulting about, ultimately executing a dance-assault that’s quickly spread across social media. The special effects crew does the rest, laying over the eerie human-like, yet robotic face that becomes more and more unnerving as the film goes on. Expect a wave of copycats to come soon.
As much fun as the film is, its message is spot-on and couldn’t be timelier. What with constant work demands and other commitments, the temptation of today’s parents to simply let their children become engrossed in video games or on-line activities instead of facilitating human interactions, is great. I’ve certainly been guilty of this from time to time. “M3GAN” effectively reminds us the price for this sort of techno-driven self-alienation is far too great to be ignored.