‘M3GAN’ Is Fun, Medium-Brow Horror Far Better Than You’d Expect For January

A horror movie doesn’t necessarily need redolent, relevant subtext, or some grand unifying metaphor to tie it all together, but it does help. That’s especially true in the case of M3GAN, opening this week from director Gerard Johnstone and writers Akela Cooper and James Wan, which, absent social commentary, is basically just a scary doll movie. We’ve seen those (in multiple, still-running franchises); even the lowest-brow popcorn head naturally expects this one to have some satire.

M3GAN is indeed a scary doll, but her powers are robotic, not strictly supernatural, and the subtext of this riff on killer AI is that it’s dangerous to let technology raise our kids. M3GAN (you can annoy your friends by stubbornly referring to it as “muh-THREE-gan”) opens with a family on their way to a ski trip. Mom and dad are bickering, and daughter, Cady (Violet McGraw) is occupied playing with a weird doll designed to poop itself. The doll was a gift from Cady’s aunt, Gemma (Allison Williams) and both parents think it’s weird, and that Cady probably shouldn’t be playing with it. Yet, as dad points out, what’s the alternative? Cady whining and bugging them the whole drive? Easier to let Cady play with her weird new tech, even if it might be warping her brain. Her whole generation is going to have warped brains anyway, wouldn’t want her to be left out.

It’s a version of a dilemma every parent has faced these days. Whether to let your kid disappear into their tablet to look at God knows what, because it’s easy and we’re too overworked or lazy, or to try to do the “right” thing and force them into the real world, at great personal cost and the risk of possibly becoming the modern version of the kids we remember whose parents wouldn’t let them watch TV and thus missed out on every playground reference to the Simpsons.

Because M3GAN is a horror movie, Cady quickly becomes orphaned via snowplow (get well soon, Jeremy Renner) and sent to live with her aforementioned aunt Gemma, a curiously attractive AI toy designer in Seattle. Gemma is a robotics whiz, but her boss, David (Ronnie Chieng) keeps pressuring her to design toys that can be manufactured cheaply (hence the shitting Furby she gifted Cady). Cady turns Gemma’s life upside down, but also inspires her. To defy her boss yet again and create M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android, a lifelike android companion, and the opposite of a cheap toy. M3GAN is so impressive that the only question is, will she cost less than a Tesla? The plan is for her to be a status toy.

This, of course, puts Cady, as the M3GAN prototype’s primary user, in the metaphorical backseat of a Tesla on full self-drive beta mode. Hopefully, the fancy tech will get her to school safely, but there’s always the risk that it mows down a few pedestrians along the way or ejects her into an abandoned quarry.

M3GAN is a pretty pitch-perfect satire, of both parenting in the age of predatory technology, and of the tech industry itself. Both of which tend to pit convenience and luxury against mental health and a right to privacy.

It’s also better at comedy than it is at horror. M3GAN is strong on color — Gemma’s obnoxious neighbor, Celia, and the other moms at the free-range alternative school Gemma sends Cady to are all lovingly sketched and imbued with memorable detail — but a little light on logistics in a mildly disappointing way. The kills are reasonably delicious (a must in this kind of movie), but they’d probably be more delicious if Johnstone had taken more time to plot and stage them in a way that made spatial and practical sense for a four-foot silicone doll. Art thrives on limitation and all that, but M3GAN seems like it’s kind of in a hurry. And so the doll just kind of defies physics whenever the story requires. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it does feel like this could’ve been so much more fun with just a little more care and creativity in the staging. Subtext is great, but don’t sell out the text for it.

The upside is that the doll (supposedly some combination of practical effects, CGI, and a child actor in a costume) is delightfully weird, breaking into song on occasion, and the kind of proper boss bitch it’s easy to cheer for. That dead-eyed stare, those inscrutable facial expressions and bitchy comebacks — she’s the ultimate real housewife, in miniature.

Mostly, M3GAN is fun: kinda smart, kinda stupid, and in either case punching way above its weight for a horror movie released in January (traditionally the studio dumping ground for schlocky turds). If this is the new bar for mass-market horror, the industry is in good shape.

‘M3GAN’ is available now in theaters everywhere. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.