Playtime — M3GAN

In my last video, where I declared the preview for the new horror film, M3GAN to be “ The Worst Trailer in the World,” I conceded that the movie would still probably be fun from the standpoint of unintentional comedy, but there was no way that it could be legitimately scary given the scenes and clips shown to us. Having seen the finished product, I wish to amend my previous statement. This is a fun movie, but it’s because the humor is 100% intentional. There still isn’t a singly scary moment to be had, but for the most part it’s forgivable.

The tone is set immediately in this occasionally delightful over-the-top romp, as the film begins with a satirical commercial for the Furby-esque “PurrPetual Pets,” a line of toys created by roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) that have taken the country by storm. We then smash cut to Gemma’s niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), as her parents are killed in a car crash on a snowy road.

This is kind of the main issue I have with the movie as a whole. It’s trying to be both funny and serious, and it only succeeds on the first front, because it tries to switch gears in such a quick, jarring fashion that just doesn’t land. You can’t expect the audience to laugh at a fake ad for a toy that replaces dead dogs and then to feel genuine emotion when you go immediately to the traumatic deaths of actual characters. The pathos just rings completely hollow, and it prevents the viewer from connecting with the people we’re supposed to care about.

Anyway, Cady comes to live with Gemma as her closest relative, though their relationship does not get off to the best of starts, for obvious reasons. A therapist called Lydia (Amy Usherwood) shows up after literally one day to set an arbitrary deadline for Gemma to turn her home into an appropriate house for a mourning child to become well-adjusted, or face the prospect of Cady being sent to Florida to live with her grandparents.

In an attempt to bond, Gemma shows Cady an android she worked on in college named Bruce, which she can control with special electric gloves. For the first time since her arrival, Cady puts on a smile and is genuinely enamored with the idea of a robotic companion, remarking that if she had a toy like that, she’d never need another, and you can all but see the light bulb turn on above Gemma’s head.

Because of market pressure, Gemma has had her boss, David (Ronny Chieng), beathing down her neck to come up with a new model of PurrPetual Pet that’s cheaper and faster to mass produce. However, in her spare time (and with unapproved company money), she’s been working on a new android that could serve as a childhood friend, the titular M3GAN, which stands for Model 3 Generative Android (an acronym so stupid that it seems clear that writers James Wan and Akela Cooper came up with a girl’s name first then worked backwards to try to justify it with technobabble). Even though the development of M3GAN has been unsuccessful, the idea of perfecting it to make Cady happy puts a pep in Gemma’s step, and before you know it, the life-size doll is ready for her debut. Voiced by Jenna Davis and played live on camera by Amie Donald, M3GAN is the instant solution for all of Cady’s problems, serving as both hyper-advanced BFF and sympathizing confidante.

From here you can pretty much see where everything is going. Given the directive to prevent Cady from all harm, be it physical or emotional, M3GAN begins by being kind and attentive (not to mention exceedingly lively despite the emotionless face), but in analyzing all situations, she interprets everyone who is remotely contrary — including Gemma herself — as a threat to be destroyed. An annoying neighbor (Lori Dungey), a bullying pre-teen boy (Jack Cassidy) who somehow feels the need to sexually assault the doll because all bad guys are rapists, Gemma’s dickhole employer, they’re all fodder for M3GAN’s theatrical — but still bloodless for PG-13 reasons — brand of comeuppance. Her power and menace grow along with the body count, until we get a climax straight out of The Terminator.

And again, a lot of this is funny and entertaining. I just wish the story was as fully committed to logic and terror as it was to comedy. Seeing the robot dance around in a hallway or contort herself into a four-legged predator as a means to taunt her eventual kill is hilarious, but it’s not the least bit scary. Hearing the doll sing “Titanium” like it’s a lullaby will have you rolling in the aisle, but otherwise you’ll feel nothing. Even her design can’t be taken seriously. I mean, in a vacuum, the idea of a soulless, murderous doll made out of four feet of silicone with dead eyes sounds intimidating. But then you remember that we’ve lived with the Kardashians as part of mainstream pop culture for the last 15+ years, and any potential impact is lost.

The movie fully leans into the humor, but that doesn’t extend to anything else to make things in any way believably thrilling. All of M3GAN’s targets are antagonistic characters or outright villains, but there’s no exploration of the potential grey area of her being an avenging angel, nor is there an innocent bystander or good guy victim thrown in to give the story any real stakes or hint that Gemma or Cady might be in danger. The sheer silliness of her pre-kill ritual is never called out by any of the soon-to-be corpses, nor is there any on-screen gore (a la American Psycho) to convey a sense of malice to counterbalance the gags. You can change the tone on a dime if there’s a truly shocking moment to trigger it, but sadly the film never takes that chance.

Hell, the filmmakers even employed the lazy trick from the Jurassic Park series to set up obvious jump scares. Throughout the picture, whenever M3GAN moves around, her motions are accompanied by mechanical and digital sound effects. But when she’s stalking her prey to sneak up and surprise them, it’s total silence, just like how dinosaurs that weigh several hundred (or thousand) pounds somehow only make noise when it’s dramatically convenient. This results in one of the few times (quite possibly the first time) since I created it that I have to invoke my “Jump Fail” protocol. I counted six jump scares, one more than the limit, and all of them completely superfluous, which lowers the potential final grade by a half-letter.

When you put these elements up against the truly well done comedy, it becomes clear that this could have been spectacular, but it was neutered somewhere along the line, probably at about the same point that the viral marketing strategies were deployed to sell the film on social media with models dressing and dancing like the android. Once you’ve decided that the female equivalent of the “GentleMinions” is going to be your main TikTok tactic for drawing in audiences, things like actual scares or risking an R-rating with graphic violence fall by the wayside.

All that said, I did enjoy myself, much more than I usually do during a January release. This is a funny, no-stakes, very tongue-in-cheek bit of implied splatter, perfect for an afternoon or night out with your friends to giggle at something ultimately disposable. It just feels like a missed opportunity in places due to a confused tone and the misplaced priorities when it came to getting the public’s attention. This little toy of a movie isn’t truly defective, but it appears destined for cult status, beloved by a few as a cherished collectible while others unceremoniously store it in the attic once the hype wears off.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can dolls actually be scary? Are you going to try to learn M3GAN’s dance moves? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on January 13, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com