M3GAN is an absurdly fun hit.
There have been a few trailers for movies over the past year that had me really excited for a movie release. The Barbie trailer is one of them. The other, also about a doll: M3GAN. The TikTok-ificiation of media marketing is as annoying as it is effective; I needed to see the entire dance scene that was teased, and I’m thrilled to report that it’s actually an even better scene than the trailer would’ve had me believe.
I’ve always thought that horror films are best when fully embracing the bizarre, and this is something that James Wan and Akela Cooper, the writers of both M3GAN and Malignant, did so well with Malignant. I missed my chance to see the completely bonkers Malignant in theaters, so I wondered how a theater full of people would have reacted to it. Would they have got it? Would they have thought it was funny? Would they scream, or laugh, at the reveal? It’s not quite the same viewing experience when it’s just me, my partner, and my cats on my couch.
I’ll never forget when I saw The Grudge (2004). I was in high school, and so was pretty much everyone else at the theater. In the beginning of the film, when Bill Pullman throws himself off of a balcony, the whole theater laughed. It really set the tone for the rest of the movie for me, and honestly, I think it set the tone for how I see horror. I can appreciate elevated, moody horror, but mostly, I think horror is fun. Horror is an outlet for us to express our fears, visualize them, and laugh at them (or at least walk away from them).
I saw a lot of horror movies in theaters in 2022. Some with fairly packed audiences, like an IMAX screening of Nope, (Honestly, packed theaters are a scary enough concept themselves still.) and some like a matinee viewing of Smile, where there were not so many people in the theater. Right in front of me, though, was a middle-aged woman with a few younger people. She jumped and squealed at all the appropriate moments — there was one time when she jumped so much that it actually startled me. As someone who is generally unflappable when it comes to watching horror movies, audience reactions like this really make a theater experience more fun. Jump scares often only have the effect of eliciting eye rolls, but every so often, seeing someone else jump will give me a little jump too.
M3GAN leans heavily into science / speculative fiction territory, much like yet another sentient doll story, Black Mirror’s “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” Like Black Mirror, M3GAN is conceptualizing fears of technology going too far. What if parents could have AI do most of the caretaking, teaching, and entertaining that they’re usually responsible for? For Allison Williams’ Gemma, a young engineer who finds herself the unprepared guardian of her young niece Cady (Violet McGraw), the robotic doll she’s working on seems like it might be the answer to all her problems.
The premise of M3GAN actually isn’t very funny. Cady’s parents die in front of her in a tragic accident, so Cady ends up in Gemma’s care. Gemma really doesn’t have the time, energy, or desire to learn how to be a guardian to her niece; she’d much rather the kid just play with her iPad and leave her alone so she can work. This genuinely sad premise is an important part of what makes M3GAN a good movie — the juxtaposition of this human element with this uncanny, creepy doll story is effective and hilarious without feeling heavy-handed.
Gemma works for a toy company that is struggling to keep up with its competitors, so M3GAN seems like the answer to all of her professional problems, too. Gemma’s boss, David (Ronny Chieng), is also sure that M3GAN — which is an acronym for “Model 3 Generative Android” — will be the solution to all of the toy company’s problems. And so Gemma and her coworkers push forward with M3GAN’s production, aiming to get the doll-cyborg in front of investors as soon as possible. To do this, M3GAN and Cady meet and instantly become best friends, because this is what M3GAN is programmed to do. M3GAN will learn about Cady and her role from each interaction; she’s teaching herself to become Cady’s protector and confidant, and she will do anything to keep Cady safe. What could go wrong?
Right away, I was so glad that I had chosen to see M3GAN in theaters on opening night. The audience I saw the movie with laughed at all the right moments — I was glad not to be in a room full of self-serious cinephiles. M3GAN is absurd, and it knows it. The off-the-wall absurdity is balanced out by its great performances. Violet McGraw is excellent as a little girl who has just gone through an extremely traumatic event — she has more emotional range than I’d ever expect from an 11-year-old. Allison Williams, too, has become one of my favorite people to see in horror.
There’s a scene about an hour into M3GAN that had my theater in stitches. I laughed so hard I cried. My friend exclaimed, “This is so stupid!” while cracking up. And it is kind of stupid, in a “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” way. The theater yelled at M3GAN, gasped and screamed. While the film was knocked down from an R rating to PG-13 to the disappointment of many horror fans, I thought there was just the right amount of violence and brutality. (If you need more violence from your creepy doll stories, there’s always Chucky.)
Getting to see a hilarious horror movie as my first theater experience of 2023 was great. I know that January is often considered a month for unremarkable film releases, but it’s also a month where I don’t want to spend much time outside — and so I will often see many unremarkable January film releases. M3GAN lived up to my expectations and then some; if you get a chance to see it in theaters, do. It’s the best movie of the year so far, and seeing M3GAN was absolutely one of the most memorable movie theater experiences I’ve ever had.