REVIEW: M3GAN (2022)

Technically first released at the tail end of 2022, horror movie M3GAN arrived in Australian theatres properly this week as the first Hollywood studio contender of 2023. It is what you might call a ‘meat-and-potatoes’ film: it does not invent anything new, nor does it present anything particularly original or striking. What it does, however, is tell a clean three-act narrative with a talented cast, a serviceable screenplay, and decent production values and visual effects. Hollywood used to make films like this all of the time, and they used to be released theatrically all the time. That nostalgic glow absolutely helps M3GAN in becoming a great slice of pop entertainment. It is not a franchise picture, nor a sequel, or even a remake: this is simply a fun movie. When it was 38°C outside, and my local cinema had both air conditioning and a discount deal on Aperol spritzes, this was a perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

A recently orphan girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) is sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist who designs interactive toys for a major manufacturer. Gemma tests her latest invention, the artificially intelligent life-size doll M3GAN (body by Amie Donald, voice by Jenna Davis), on a grieving Cady. While the initial results seem spectacular, the robot’s adaptive programming begins to warp its behaviour and its mission to care for Cady’s welfare.

Obviously this is hardly the first horror film to feature murderous toys or killer AIs. The familiarity, though, breeds not contempt but comfort. M3GAN sidesteps 20 years of genre evolution to present the kind of popular, easily digestible horror that used to be a dime-a-dozen in American cinemas. It is more comedic than frightening, and intended to be entertaining for the broadest audience possible. It is simply a good time for a mass audience. It is honestly more enjoyable when seen with a like-minded crowd of viewers.

The effects and design work really accentuate Amie Donald’s physical performance as M3GAN. Of course I couldn’t tell you where the actress ends and the CGI begins, but in tandem they absolutely work in straddling that uncomfortable ‘uncanny valley’ where something looks almost real. Commercial horror goes well with a memorable antagonist, and production houses Blumhouse and Atomic Monster definitely have one here. Director Gerard Johnstone has put together this particular confection competently and energetically.

Human performances are rock-solid. Allison Williams is an engaging lead, although her character seems oddly neglectful for plot reasons. Violet McGraw is excellent as Cady, presenting a convincing and complex portrayal of emotional attachment, grief, and rage. Comedian Ronnie Chieng is well-cast as a humorous, unreasonable boss – we have all met them.

A real star here is writer Akela Cooper, who developed the story with producer James Wan before writing the screenplay herself. She also wrote 2021’s Malignant for Wan, and is running two-for-two on unfussy, entertaining horror flicks. Next she is handling the sequel The Nun 2, which has increased my interest in that film considerably.

M3GAN is not a classic by any means. It is unlikely to be on anybody’s ‘best of the year’ lists come December, but it knows what it is trying to be and it matches that model wonderfully. I have said this before, and will continue to press the point: not every film is a masterpiece, and not every film needs to be a masterpiece. Some times it is okay to simply show your audience a good time.

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