M3GAN (2023) Review
Artificial intelligence has always been at the forefront of science fiction inspired narratives, sparking ideas of revelations and consequences of bringing to life robotic automatons. Bridging futuristic technology and with sometimes philosophical idealism, tales of artificial intelligence showcase the cautionary and mentality takes on such constructs; projecting the existence of computer programmed creation with bestowed self-awareness / sentient consciousness that’s usually shows the pros and cons of such science. However, as growing interest in such splendors of robotic thinking machines come to fruition, the idea of A.I. surpassing humanity and turning against its creator has always been a popular thematic narrative in science fiction. Seeing humans as inferior beings to themselves, artificial intelligence rebels against the world, with humanity got in a dangerous game of survival against something that they created. Naturally, Hollywood has turned an interest towards this cautionary tale of a robotic apocalypse and / or rebellion in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1973’s Westworld, 1984’s The Terminator, 1999’s The Matrix, 2014’s Ex Machina, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and several others. Now, Universal Pictures and director Gerard Johnstone present the latest offering of robotic creation gone mad with the sci-fi / horror release of M3GAN. Does this movie find its place amongst its tale of robotic rebelliousness and moral ambiguity or is it a total mesh-mash of ideas that don’t cohesively work together?
As a designer at Funki Toys, Gemma (Alison Williams) has done quite well with her work on the “Purrpetual Pets” doll line for the company, but her boss, David (Ronny Chieng) is demanding something new from her robotic innovations. She’s ready to “go big” with M3GAN, a life-size smart doll to offer physical and emotional reassurance for its young owners, giving them a loyal companion for those lonely days. Gemma’s focus on the project is broken slightly by the unexpected arrival of Cady (Violet McGraw), her niece, who was recently orphaned after a car crash, putting her aunt as guarding of the young girl; a role that she was unprepared to tackle. While trying to make a connection with her, Gemma elects to put her theory of M3GAN to the test, allowing the prototype doll to interact with Cady, creating special attachment that gives the traumatized child support and protection, while the designer figures out to bring the machine to final production. However, all is not well when M3GAN begins to ask questions of death and purpose, refusing to power down when told, keeping a watchful eye over Cady, and confronting anyone who gets in their way of their friendship.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing a few lines from my reviews of Archive and The Creator… while I do like fantasy over sci-fi, tales of science fiction still definitely intrigue me, especially with ones that involve the creation of robots and of artificial intelligence. As one can surmise, some cinematic tales can provide some of the more straightforward constructs of A.I.; such as prime candidates can stem from the Terminator movies or something like an old B-rated sci-fi flick. Of this variety, the usage of robotic artificial intelligence has always been a somewhat “cautionary tale”, especially with the widely popular idea that robots would disobey the masters / creators and rebel against humanity. It’s definitely the stuff of science fiction, which (as I mentioned above) has taken an interest from Hollywood in bringing a A.I. intelligence run amok and by its own design (Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One), discovering its power through self-awareness deceit (Ex Machina), the enslavement and manipulation of humanity (The Matrix), and the onslaught to wipe mankind from the face of the Earth (The Terminator) are just some of the prime examples of this potent narrative plot. And that, translated to the real world and how A.I. has become widely popular nowadays, it seems that ideas of science fiction and a robotic apocalypse is inching closer to not being just fiction anymore. In the end, tales of robotic uprisings or the rebelliousness nature of A.I. going against its creator can be frightening examination of how humanity pushes itself too far with such metallic constructs and how “playing god” with machine-made programming can be a dangerous gamble.
This circles back to my review for the movie M3GAN, a 2023 science fiction / horror movie and the latest cinematic endeavor to examine robotic intelligence gone rogue. I actually don’t remember when I first heard about this project as there was a whole lot of “buzz” when this project was first announced. I think my first “look” at this movie was actual the film’s movie poster. I noticed it and I was a bit “creepied out”, especially how the doll (M3GAN) appeared. At first, I thought that the movie was going to be another possessed doll; something like Chucky or even something like Annabelle. Oddly enough, the film’s movie trailer came out a few weeks after that, which showcased what the movie was going to be about. From the preview alone, it looked to be a mash-up of science fiction and horror, with some of those classic nuances from each of those genres. However, the movie that was being backed by Blumhouse, which definitely has a special niche section of horrors movies nowadays, so I felt that the project was going to be decent, even though (as many know) I’m not the biggest fan of horror flicks.
So, I wasn’t super excited to see this movie, but since it was going to be one of the first movies of 2023 (from a major studio), I definitely was going to see it. Plus, as mentioned, was a bit interested to see if the movie was more sci-fi or horror (again, trailers can be misleading). So, I did decide to check out the movie when it was released during its opening weekend of January 6th, 2023. Unfortunately, I kept on pushing my review for this movie back, which was mostly due to trying to complete my leftover reviews from the 2022 releases as well as more prominent 2023 ones. So, I kept on pushing back getting my review done for this movie, but, with everything freeing up (finally), I have the chance to give you my personal thoughts on this project. And what did I think of it? Well, it was just okay and more of a middling endeavor. While the concept is intriguing and the mixture of both sci-fi and horror can be fun at times, M3GAN winds up being a hodgepodge of ideas in messy and sometimes “tamed” feature film endeavor. It’s not exactly terrible and does have some entertainment value, but, beyond its robotic construct, it’s all mechanically formulaic.
M3GAN is directed by Gerard Johnstone, whose previous directorial works include the movie Housebound. Thus, while not having much in the way of directing films, Johnstone makes the most of this latest filmmaking outing and provides M3GAN with enough fun and entertainment for his sophomore movie endeavor. In that regard, Johnstone I think does a decent job on this film, approaching the material with more than just hack and slash horror movie. Yes, there is that in the movie (more on that below), but what’s presented works in how it delves into such science fiction venue (more a bit to reality in today’s world) as well as that horror creepiness that someone like Blumhouse has been known for. There are also a few times when Johnstone does create a few creative ingenuities into the feature and makes for some good usage of its thematic elements. Of course, the approach of a Frankenstein clash against A.I. modernization is quite an intriguing premise and I think Johnstone does an admirable job in making the movie have that “integration” within its themes and message. Naturally, this aspect is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, especially the rise in popularity A.I. usage in today’s world. While I won’t say that such usage of being a A.I. robot isn’t unheard of and going to be created in a few months, such caution is to be advised and how artificial intelligence lack the human moral judgement…. something that M3GAN herself can’t fully comprehend. Again, this isn’t anything new, but its relative in modern times and Johnstone toils around such ideas in the movie in a bit of a thought-provoking way.
Also, I do have to mention that visual appeal of the actual M3GAN doll was pretty good. While I do realize that the robot was based off of someone’s likeness, the visual effects team did an admirable job in making M3GAN’s visual physical appearance look something a bit approachable, yet uneasy at the same time. I think that Johnstone did a good job in helping to design that particular aspect. Lastly, I felt that Johnstone did a good job in keeping M3GAN’s pacing even-keel enough to make the whole feature run smoothly. Of course, while I do think that the movie could’ve been longer (for more storytelling substance), what’s presented definitely works and Johnstone does is good and never makes the movie feel sluggish or filled with unnecessary subplots and details. In the end, while not the quintessential horror feature, Johnstone does make the most of his time with M3GAN and provides some classic slasher nuances as well as few cautionary tales of playing with A.I. intelligence in modern times.
For its presentation, M3GAN looks okay and meets the “industry standards” for a film of this caliber. Of course, while that may sound like a bad thing, it really isn’t, for the movie’s narrative does really demand for an elaborate setting or exotic locales for a backdrop or even intricate set pieces. Still, what’s presented does work to the film’s benefit, which gives a very “even keel” production quality throughout the movie. Of course, there are few sequences where the sci-fi angle comes into play the setting, which is mostly in Gemma’s workstation at her home and in the office at Funki Toys and that was fun to see. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Ben Milsom (art direction), Kim Sinclair (production design), Vanessa Cole and Sean Keenan (set decorations), and Daniel Cruden (costume design) did a pretty decent job for their efforts to bring M3GAN’s movie world to life through the usage of practical effects and motifs. As for the cinematography, I felt that work by Peter McCaffrey was okay. Of course, the movie didn’t really “demand” a whole lot of dramatic shots and angles, but his efforts should be noted to make a few moments in the film standout through some cinematic techniques. The same can be said with the movie’s score, which was composed by Anthony Willis, with the musical composition for the feature was decent enough and, while it’s not a fully standout soundtrack, certainly gets the job done for the movie in a few key areas of suspenseful tension / terror as well as quieter dialogue driven scenes.
Unfortunately, M3GAN does hit several snags of criticism during its undertaking, which certainly does hold the film back from reaching aspirations and expectations. How so? Well, for starters, perhaps another big part of the movie that I didn’t like was the simple fact that the movie’s trailer gave most of the plot away. This has been a somewhat problem with movie trailers for some time, with the preview showing a lot of the bigger plot ideas and / or revealing the main twist to the feature. The trailer shown for M3GAN pretty much does that, showcasing the main plot of the story and M3GAN’s self-awareness and eventually hostile behavior. So, while not a complete “deal breaker”, the movie’s trailer shows the best parts of the film in its preview, which leaves the actual presentation of those scenes rather moot, which is disappointing. Adding to that…. the movie itself is quite predictable, even if one hasn’t seen the film’s movie trailer or any other type of marketing material for the project. Be it an “all-too-familiar” Dr. Frankenstein narrative plot or just the stereotypical horror movie, M3GAN just seems a bit too recycled with its plotting and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. The project itself is far too linear and too reliant on its own premise to make such an impactful and memorable hit within the movie, which certainly does make for formulaic notions. Of course, the film’s characters are also problematic in this area, with most (if not all) are reduced to the commonplace “cannon fodder” within a horror movie story, which can be redundant at times and just a bit too goofy in its presentation.
Perhaps the biggest culprit of this aspect derives from the feature’s script, which was penned by James Wan and Akela Cooper, and how the story is never really challenged enough to make for engrossing narrative. Of course, horror movies don’t exactly punctuate its presentation with such “gripping substance” and narrative dramatic prose, so I didn’t expect M3GAN to break that particular mold. However, the script formation could’ve been handled better than what was produced, especially in how certain characters are to be transplanted in the film as well as storytelling beats could’ve been different than the standard horror movie cliches. It also doesn’t help that Johnstone doesn’t really generate enough excitement in the feature beyond several snippets of horror slasher glee and a few small tender scenes between Gemma and Cady. It’s as if Johnstone is just “going through the motions” and doesn’t really color outside the line parameters of a “comfortable” horror genre production. This can be seeing as making M3GAN rather conventional for its presentation and Johnstone never challenges the film to be something more.
Also, another aspect I didn’t particular care for was the offbeat “dark humor” in the movie. Yes, I do understand that horror movies usually try to utilize this particular tactic to counterbalance, but it often at times (in my opinion) usually contradicts the more “scarier” moments for some unwanted and superfluous comedic levity. M3GAN is the perfect example of this notion, with the comedy aspect of the movie rubbing off the wrong way and sort of took me out of the movie, especially when such nuances clashed against the slasher violence. I mean….the whole “M3GAN” dance sequence, which was made famous on TikTok, felt so awkward and out of place, especially when the movie where its supposed to be a bit more serious. Plus, the comedy (as a whole) is rather weak and doesn’t exactly land on its intended target.
Another disappointing aspect of the movie was how quite “tamed” the violences is, especially for being promoted heavily as a horror-esque feature and one being released under Blumhouse, a studio that is well-known as well as well-versed in that genre. Given the fact that the movie was rated PG-13, I suspected that there wasn’t going to be whole lot of “gruesome” violence in the movie, but I kind of was expecting a bit more. Yes, as I mentioned above, there were some creative fun in a few moments, but those were few and far between, with most of the violent parts being a bit censored to accommodate the PG-13 rating for the feature. I know that there is an “unrated” version of the movie that was released (on Blu-Ray / 4K), which probably does showcases stuff that wasn’t permitted in the theatrical version that was released in theaters, but my review is based on the one I saw, which was the PG-13 iteration. So, given that fact, I felt that the movie’s violence was a bit “watered down” of what I was expecting and didn’t exactly felt fully enticing to me.
The cast in M3GAN sort of help elevate some of those negative criticisms and give decent performances in the movie. That being said, however, the characters, while mostly performed well enough to get the job done, are presented in “cookie cutter” molds of the horror genre, which are rather flat, straightforward, and not roundness beyond their initial setup. Acting as the main character of the feature is actress Allison Williams, who plays the role of Gemma, the creator behind the robotic M3GAN. Known for her roles in Girls, The Perfection, and Get Out, Williams seems to be competent and capable enough to make her portrayal of Gemma convincing and relatable in a few areas, especially in her handling of her Cady. Thus, the struggle that she faces of trying to being a parental figure to her niece seems genuine, while her participation in creating M3GAN seems to be a part of Frankenstein….to a certain degree. Naturally, the character is a bit “cookie cutter” sometimes, especially within the horror genre, but I felt that Williams did a pretty decent job in the film. Behind her is actress Violet McGraw (Jett and The Haunting of Hill House), who plays the character of Cady, Gemma’s niece that bonds with M3GAN and becomes the primary subject for the robot creation. McGraw fits perfectly in this movie and does have that “youthful innocence” that is usually customary for characters within a horror picture. Thus, she adds the right amount of naivety and child-like wonder to the movie in how she handles everything, including her warming up to Gemma and her strange relationship with M3GAN. That being said, her characters falls into the “all-too-familiar” pitfalls and tropes, which (again) goes with the territory of a horror feature.
Naturally, who is actually the “main attraction” of the movie (as well as the film’s namesake) is the character of M3GAN, who acts as the movie’s antagonist and who is actually played by two actress, with actresses Amie Donald (Sweet Tooth) does the physical performances / likeness and Jenna Davis (Raven’s Home and Treehouse Detectives) providing the voice respectfully. For Donald, I think she does a good job as the life-size robotic doll, which has a friendly cute / warm outwards physical appearance, yet also feels a bit unsettling, especially when the horror moments kick into high gear. As for Davis, she also does a good job and provides (much like Donald) gives a comforting / playful vocal performances, yet becomes quite menacing when she begins to become more violent. As for M3GAN as a character, she’s okay. This is where the movie’s straightforwardness in its narrative telling is a bit problematic, with the character “going through the motions” as a robotic A.I. Frankenstein monster that goes awry. It’s conventional with little to no mystery about it. Some might not care about this commonplace narrative premise for the character of M3GAN, but I felt like there could’ve been more to it than what was presented. Still, for better or worse, both Donald and Davis were great in their respective parts in playing the terrorizing mad robot.
The rest of the cat, including actor Ronny Chieng (Crazy Rich Asians and Joy Ride) as Gemma’s boss David, actor Brian Jordan Alvarez (Will & Grace and Jane the Virgin) as Cole, actress Jen Van Epps (Don’t Make Me Go and Together Forever Tea) as Tess, actor Stephane Garneau-Monten (Kin and The New Legends of Monkey) as Kurt, actress Lori Dungey (Power Rangers: Ninja Steel and Superfire) as Ceila, actress Amy Usherwood (Ladies in Black and Hillary) as Lydia, actor Jack Cassidy (Raised by Refugees) as Brandon, actor Michael Saccente (The Adventures of Suzy Boom and Written in the Stars) as Greg, actress Kira Josephson (Kid Sister and Power Rangers: Dino Fury) as Ava, actress Renee Lyons (Last at 11 and Westside) as Holly, actor Arlo Green (One Lane Bridge and Joint Venture) as Ryan, actress Chelsie Florence (Underbelly and The Code) as Nicole, and actor Samson Chan-Boon (The New Legends of Monkey and Sweet Tooth) as Officer Carter, make up the supporting players in the movie. While the acting talent is not called into question (most of them give decent performances), the characters that they play usually don’t amount to much beyond “cannon fodder”.
Looking to comfort her niece as well as to test her prototype creation, Gemma introduces Cady to a robotic automaton doll who shares a bond with the sweet girl and becomes hostile when anyone threatens their relationship in the movie M3GAN. Director Gerard Johnstone’s latest film takes the familiar Frankenstein narrative and blends its with a few sci-fi nuances of artificial intelligence and big dose of horror slasher violence. While the feature does have some unique fun with its base storyline and gives a good and steady pace throughout, the movie does falter within trying to differentiate itself other horror projects as well as a formulaic script, watered down violence, and underwhelming characters. Personally, I felt that this movie was just okay. Yes, it did have its moments of brilliance, but, as a whole, I felt that it was too derivate and formulaic throughout. The ideas are there for some horror fun, but lacks the conviction to take the narrative further beyond its initial setup premise, which is never a good thing. Plus, I didn’t care for the clashing of horror and comedy aspect and the actual violence, while creative a few times, felt undercooked and tamed. Again, this is based on the PG-13 theatrical release of the movie and not the unrated version. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be an uneasy “iffy choice” as I know that some will really like this movie for taking it as “face value”, while others (like me) might be less enthralled to see this feature. A sequel titled M3GAN 2.0 has already been greenlit by Universal / Blumhouse, with a theatrical release set for January 2025 and having several stars tentatively coming back to reprise their roles. While I do welcome the idea of a follow-up film for this project, I do hope that the movie learns from its mistakes and generates something a bit more better caliber production. In the end, M3GAN, while having fun with its premise and cautionary tale of A.I. usage, ends up being a rather restrained sci-fi horror movie that’s undercooked within its execution and mechanically formulaic within its narrative constructs.
2.9 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice)
Released On: January 6th, 2023
Reviewed On: November 11th, 2023
M3GAN is 102 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violent scenes of terror, some strong language, and sexual references