The 2001 sci-fi film A.I. – Artificial Intelligence explores a mythic and timeless tale of a mechanical child that joins a family beset by a terrible tragedy. Haley Joel Osment is “David”, a startlingly realistic robot who seeks to assuage the pain of his human “mother” Monica (Frances O’Connor), who has lost her real son. In the hands of director Steven Spielberg, the film becomes a smart and thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, as David travels a somewhat Pinocchio-esque path, seeking to become human so that he can stop Monica’s pain. Director Gerard Johnstone starts with a similar idea but follows a dramatically different path in the Blumhouse-produced horror film M3GAN, however.
Cady (Violet McGraw) is a teen girl who is starting to push against the edges of her mundane middle-class existence when her parents are tragically killed in an auto accident. Once she recovers from her own injuries, she finds herself living with her young, workaholic aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Gemma is a robotics expert and while her employer has been pushing her to create a Furbee-like animated figure, she’s secretly been trying to create something far more formidable; a life-like robot that can be a child’s best friend. Given Cady’s difficulty taking Gemma seriously as a parent figure, adding a new member of the household is clearly going to reap benefits. When Gemma brings “M3GAN” (pronounced “Megan”) home, Cady has a new BFF, a friend who is completely focused on her needs and wants. M3GAN (Amie Donald, with some creepy facial prosthetics) has no needs of her own, she doesn’t need to charge her battery, plug into the Internet, have downtime to process information, she’s programmed to completely obsess over Cady.
This works well for most of the movie, though M3GAN starts to override some of the rudimentary safety systems that Gemma had designed into the robot for human safety. No Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics for this robot, for sure. When Cady attends an open house for an alternative school, she throws a tantrum insisting that M3GAN must come along too. The school employee agrees, saying that M3GAN can be “left on the toy table”, which works well until Cady is paired with brutish bully Brandon (Jack Cassidy) for a treasure hunt in the woods. When he begins to harass Cady, M3GAN rushes to her defense, interposing herself in a violent and aggressive manner, then chases Brandon through the forest with predictably dire results.
As with all monster movies, that’s the point at which M3GAN seems to realize that she has quite a bit of power to control the world around Cady, even to the point of openly defying and threatening Gemma. For her part, she’s let her boss David (Ronny Chieng) see the robot in action and he’s eager to announce this amazing new super toy to the world, even if it’s not tested or remotely ready to manufacture. Will M3GAN cooperate for the unveiling or has she become too unhinged by this juncture for the event to be anything other than a blood-soaked disaster? Well, it’s a horror film so you can imagine how things turn out.
M3GAN has a lot of the ingredients for a smart, contemporary horror film in an era when adults are wringing their hands over AI-powered writing tools and art creation systems. There are (mostly) autonomous vehicles on the road and an increasing level of automation in our world. A poorly designed robot that’s focused on the welfare of a hurt and angry child seems is rather like Alexa gone horribly awry.
Unfortunately, the script (by Akela Cooper and horror film director James Wan) is a sloppy mess, with frequent inexplicable changes in behavior – including M3GAN – and characters that are laughably shallow and predictable. Gemma in particular offers a whiplash-inducing transition in one scene from endlessly self-absorbed into dispenser of great wisdom about the pain of parental loss that immediately changes Cady from angry to docile and devoted to her new guardian/mother. M3GAN also endlessly defies physics, but that’s a common failing in cinematic scenes where a character has super powers.
In a very modern trend, most of the horror scenes in the film have also been revealed in the film’s trailer. With a running time of only 102 minutes and a script that offers a slow build-up for at least 70 of those minutes, all of what horror film aficionados would call “the good stuff” happens in the last 15-20 minutes, which isn’t much time to turn a creepy doll robot into a terrifying monster. As a result, there are half-baked ideas that are right out of horror trope 101, appearing once and then never again. No spoilers, but where was the continuity in this production?
M3GAN is worth watching nonetheless for the themes that it tries to explore. There are some jump scares, but as with many films in this genre, it would be fascinating to have a more sophisticated director tackle the same story but in a manner that offered up an intersection of dark, thoughtful noir and violent, satisfying horror film. As is, I recommend you wait for it to come out on cable or streaming.