M3GAN movie poster | ©2023 Universal Pictures

M3GAN movie poster | ©2023 Universal Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis (voice), Ronny Chieng, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jack Cassidy
Writer: Akela Cooper, story by Akela Cooper & James Wan
Director: Gerard Johnstone
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: January 6, 2023

M3GAN gets the new movie year off to a good start. It’s ultimately a FRANKENSTEIN riff, insofar as it’s about a creator who has to come to terms with a creation that takes on a life of its own. In this case, however, the creation is a lifelike little girl doll with smart AI software, and the creator is an engineer who is far more comfortable in her lab than with real people.

Gemma (Allison Williams) thinks her biggest problem is hiding her new project – the doll – from her toy company boss, David (Ronny Chieng). David just wants Gemma and her team to figure how out to make a cheaper version of their best-selling artificial pet.

But when Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car accident, Gemma becomes guardian of their nine-year-old daughter Cady (Violet McGraw). Gemma knows she’s the logical choice (she thinks her brother-in-law’s folks are strange), but doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to parent.

Then Gemma realizes that her prototype lifelike, life-sized robot child doll, M3GAN (played physically by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis), may solve the problem. M3GAN – the name is an acronym – can learn by interaction, knows how to present human-looking emotions, and imprints on her primary user, Cady.

M3GAN is programmed to protect Cady, emotionally and physically. Even without seeing the trailer, we can guess where this will wind up, but director Gerard Johnstone and writer Akela Cooper, working from a story by Cooper & James Wan, make the journey surprisingly unpredictable and fun.

The filmmakers are smart in the meta sense. They know how to immediately get the audience’s sympathies where needed at any given moment, so that we’re on M3GAN’s side when we’re supposed to be, and then against her when the story calls for that.

In order to pull this off, of course, there’s a low level of moral ambiguity. We get that Gemma’s efforts to avoid dealing with Cady are ill-advised; this is helpfully spelled out by both a concerned coworker (Jen Van Epps) and a social worker.

At the point where we might feel for M3GAN, who is self-aware but reliant on humans who treat her like a servant or a commodity, she has become so homicidal that these sentiments go out the window. In another type of film, with bigger ambitions, this would be a flaw. Here, it seems like the right structural move to keep things on track.

Williams is solid as Gemma, and McGraw is excellent as Cady. Donald gives a marvelous physical performance as M3GAN, and Davis’s voice is shrewdly on point.

M3GAN is rated PG-13, which for a horror film often indicates compromise. Here, there is enough gore to honor what’s going on, without overstepping the rating.

This is also YA horror that doesn’t exclude adults. One of M3GAN’s greatest virtues is that we never quite know what’s coming next, but we’re always made to feel like we’re a welcome part of a conspiracy with the filmmakers.

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