In cinematic terms, January is usually a wasteland for new releases, often “dumped” by studios that know they won’t perform well, or future Oscar contenders spilled over from their December LA/NYC playdates. New-to-the-year releases are a risky venture, yet the fun, playful and dangerous M3GAN is playing into the risk, not only against the behemoth that is Avatar: The Way of Water, but so early in the month. Kudos to Universal and Blumhouse for playing the odds.
The risk, however, will more than pay off: Gerard Johnstone’s modestly budgeted film is more than just a sci-fi-horror-comedy film. M3GAN is a solid riff on movies such as Child’s Play mixed with a bit of Ex Machina. The cynical and witty humor with which Akela Cooper’s script brilliantly channels Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop makes M3GAN a very, very playful (pun intended) story.
M3GAN is the story of a brilliant robotics engineer, Gemma (Allison Williams), and her recently-orphaned niece, Cady (Violet McGraw). The two personalities could not be different, and Williams plays Gemma to the hilt. Both are willful; whereas Gemma respects authority, Cady doesn’t yet understand the dangers of unchecked willfulness. Gemma is organized and a geek of a collector. Yet, she is anxious to prove herself to her toy company employer.
Thus enters M3GAN, Model 3 Generative Android (voiced by Jenna Davis). M3GAN is the latest toy developed by Gemma and her team (Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps), and it will envy every kid whose parents can’t afford it. Johnstone and Cooper humanize the story through “trying to prove yourself” from opposite ends, with disastrous and expected consequences. The consequences require a bit of suspended disbelief to enjoy them, but the cynicism between characters is a direct wink at the audience, and it plays for what it is.
Watching McGraw on screen was uncanny fun. I was never a willful boy, but man, oh man, did I get into similar trouble with my parents. The actress knows she’s a character, but I’d be willing to bet that we got a bit of the actual actress on the screen, and that’s the key: the realism with which this fantasy plays out. Sure, it might be challenging to accept that we’re so technologically advanced enough to be able to not only build an android but also give it a learning A.I. that’s fast enough to adapt to its mate is incredible. That’s what makes the science fiction aspect of M3GAN work so effectively – the characters and the story sell this as if it is a new but everyday occurrence. It is “pure imagination” and revolutionary. (Yes, I went Willy Wonka on you.)
Watching Williams come to terms with the Frankenstein-like repercussions of her creation going amok while striking a balance between accepting the responsibilities of being a parent is natural. Williams plays the role to the hilt as she realizes the mistakes made. She owns up to them, though, and that’s the hallmark of a great script.
The character of M3GAN is the real highlight, though. Articulated by Amie Donald, the special effects employed on M3GAN are next level. The fact that we even get the opportunity to enjoy such a film in the overblown hype of intellectual properties and world-building comic book superhero movies is refreshing.
Where M3GAN doesn’t always work is in its pacing. Even with a relatively short running time of 102 minutes, the story rushes to establish itself only to spend time dissecting itself, where it doesn’t need to do so. M3GAN balances the struggle and psychology of wills, all childlike in their unique way. The wildly intelligent adult who doesn’t understand parent-child dynamics creates an android meant for children, the orphaned child learning a new routine while still not relating to authority, and the android with no fundamental safeguards at the hands of said child. Still, we get to understand the character modalities, which is critical to understanding the importance and relevance of this movie’s impact on our current generation. It is sure to become a cult classic.
Ronny Chieng as Gemma’s clueless boss, David, is an absolute highlight, and Lori Dungey as Gemma’s nosey and disrespectful neighbor, Celia, reminds us that reasonable personal spaces exist. Anthony Willis’ score is playful and Peter McCaffrey and Simon Raby’s cinematography, considering much of the film was shot at night or in the wooded, mountainous terrain of the Seattle area, is excellent.
M3GAN is as much an homage to the classic films I mentioned as it is its own creation. It succeeds on its merits even if it is quick to establish itself and then slows down to explain why. The strength of character and the understanding of its relevance to society today makes it a perfect gamble against Mr. Cameron.
Directed by Gerard Johnstone
Screenplay by Akela Cooper, Story by Akela Cooper and James Wan
Starring Allison Williams, Jenna Davis, Violet McGraw, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps, Stephane Garneau-Monten
102 mins, PG-13, Universal Pictures/Blumhouse Productions