Old school plot meets 2020s world. Universal and Blumhouse’s M3GAN sets the bar high for 2023 horror movies. Solidly written, this horror movie proves that some ideas and themes are simply timeless! M3GAN can be read as a cautionary tale of the terrors of technology. Moreover, a closer reading reveals that it also concerns itself with an exploration of the responses to grief, sudden life change, and fears of parenting. While the movie takes itself seriously, the conflict and violence is done for laughs–and it certainly delivers both chilling and laughable moments! I can easily see it becoming a house at a future Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Hollywood.
A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own. Short synopsis, but that’s pretty much it. Simple, yet effective storytelling.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, horror/sci-fi movies were often about the dangers of technology. Ultimately, it can be boiled down to fear of the unknown, but this exploration of when technology rebels against its creator is a premise that remains timeless as technology is always changing. Back in the early to mid 20th century, it was robots; and here we are in the 21st century, and it’s still robots (well, more accurately androids or AI). The possibility of intelligent robots turning on us has always stoked fear because of the loss of control. Even in Terminator and Terminator 2, we witness the attempt to wipe out humanity. I appreciate this movie’s premise and themes for taking direct inspiration from and paying homage to all the horror-scifi movies to comes before it that fall within this subgenre of horror.
M3GAN reminds me of a feature length episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. Written by Akela Cooper (writer of Malignant), the pacing and structure are lean and never lag; however, there are elements of the story (provided by James Wan) that should have been better developed. These shortcomings do not significantly impact the movie’s immense enjoyment factor. Where the film most noticeably struggles is in the direction by relatively new director Gerard Johnstone. That’s not to say that it’s poorly directed–not at all–but had the directing been stronger, the performative dimension would have benefitted. Still, I’m eager to continue to follow Johnstone as he develops as a director.
Universal and Blumhouse take the terror of a killer android and place it within a child’s toy. Again, this isn’t new, but it is a new approach to the Talkie Tina episode of The Twilight Zone or Child’s Play. Much like Black Mirror was a better Twilight Zone than Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone remake, M3GAN may be a better Child’s Play than the remake/reboot of Child’s Play from 2019. I haven’t rewatched the Child’s Play remake since it released, so I will be careful not to presume M3GAN to be better. But my gut reaction is that I enjoyed this movie more than the quintessential killer doll legacy property.
Beneath the outside/action plot of the self-aware killer robot, are themes of grief/loss and parenting fears. After Katie loses her parents in a tragic car accident, she is placed under the guardianship of her (moderately) estranged aunt Gemma whom is an engineer for a Funko-like toy company (in the movie, the toy company is named Funki). Clearly, Katie’s aunt is uninterested in being a parent–she wasn’t even interested in being an aunt–but Katie has nowhere else to go except to her father’s weird family in Jacksonville, FL. So Gemma reluctantly becomes her guardian. Where the film is particularly fascinating, in the area of commentary on parenting in the 2020s, is Gema and Katie’s interactions (or lack thereof) with one another.
Gemma takes an analytical approach to parenting by identifying logistical problems and providing measurable solutions. When Katie doesn’t respond as anticipated, Gemma is at a loss as to what to do. Gemma lacks the empathy and emotive responses that a parent (biological or adopted) needs to exhibit when rearing a child. Gemma’s life plan was abruptly interrupted and introduced to dynamics over which she had little control. In her desire to control, she builds M3GAN as both a groundbreaking toy and as a surrogate parent-like figure in Katie’s life. Through the events of the movie, Gemma learns that there is more to being a parent than providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Furthermore, this serves as a cautionary tale of parents turning child rearing and education over to technology. Without human empathy, critical thinking, and intuition, a child’s cognitive and social development may be warped.
The other area on which this horror movie provides commentary is on grief/loss. Not a new theme in horror movies, it is explored in a new way in M3GAN. Katie suffers the worst loss a child can: the death of both parents. Because of the lack of real empathy and emotive care from aunt Gemma, Katie forms an unhealthy attachment to M3GAN. Because Gemma and Katie never talk about what happened (and the therapist is pretty much useless), Katie never goes through all the stages of grief and therefore never processes (to what extent a child can) the tragedy and how to move forward. M3GAN provides that which is (and should be) provided by parents and friends, but as the events of the movie unfold, we learn just how dangerous that attachment can be for Katie and those around her.
While the writing is mostly strong (save a couple of setups that aren’t followed through in a substantive way), the direction is weak in places. Over all, fairly well directed. But the performative dimension is where the movie struggles. Even though some of the characters are more-or-less caricatures of types of people we have in our lives, there are several scenes in which the performances aren’t campy enough to be funny nor are they realistic enough to be taken more seriously. Some performances fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a casting issue, but this is where a director needs to be strong enough to get the appropriate performance out of the actor.
For those that are so often worried about a horror movie with a PG-13 rating (a sentiment that I’ve never understood), rest assured that M3GAN is wildly entertaining and, yes, you still get some fun kills and bone-chilling scenes. That said, I imagine that there will be an unrated or R-rated release of the movie on BluRay. If this movie is an indicator of that we are to expect from 2023 horror, it may be a banner year! Only time will tell, but regardless, it is one that horror fans are sure to enjoy!
Don’t wait for M3GAN to his Peacock or Prime, if you’re a horror fan, then you want to see it on the big screen! You’re definitely in for a wild ride that will have you jumping and laughing.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.