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M3GAN (2022)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

M3GAN might not set the world on fire as a horror flick, but it burns bright and kinda brilliant as a whacked-out social satire.  Look long enough into its shenanigans and you’ll find riffs on the increasing encroachment of artificial intelligence, and how parents use gadgetry to distract unruly children. (Count me guilty of the latter.)  Luckily, many of these pointy jabs are pretty funny.  Put it another way:  As long as you can accept that the trailer and posters for M3GAN are selling you on the wrong genre, you’ll have a good time with this.

The story begins on a treacherous mountain road, where young Cady (Violet McGraw) and her parents head for a ski trip.  Do drivers in movies ever take snowy, winding, isolated roads and not get into horrific accidents?  No, no they don’t.  The opening scene cuts at the oncoming lights of a wayward semi, leaving Cady as the only survivor.  As she recovers from her cuts and bruises, Cady is shipped off to live with Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), her closest living relative.

Turns out, Gemma couldn’t be a worse fit as a guardian: She’s an ambitious young careerist, with little time for friends or family.  That goes especially for the sullen, shellshocked little girl who moves into the spare bedroom.  Cady needs tender care by the truckload, and Gemma’s just not emotionally equipped or physically able to provide it.  Unless

Gemma spots a potential solution within the very job that isolates her.  We learn that she creates cutting-edge A.I. toys for children, and her company is on the hunt for the next big thing.  With that in mind, Gemma creates M3GAN, or Model 3 Generative Android.  (Just sounds evil, doesn’t it?) M3GAN looks like a cross between a Chucky doll and that robot on Small Wonder. Gemma programs M3GAN to be a constant companion for Cady.  She will act as teacher, babysitter, and an outlet for Cady’s considerable grief.

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At first, everything goes just peachy.  M3GAN helps Cady learn to use coasters.  She records Cady’s memories of her parents. Best of all, Cady gets the emontional presence she desperately needs.  Meanwhile, Gemma wows her bosses with the idea of an assembly line of M3GANs, each selling for 10k a pop.

Of course, none of this meant to last.  As with every other example of cinematic A.I., man’s greatest sin is hubris.  M3GAN gets aware enough to wonder why she has to take orders.  And then, she goes nice and bonkers.  She turns Cady against Gemma, and becomes a raving monster toward anyone who might harm the little girl.  By the time the grownups try to power her down, M3GAN has morphed into a Hasbro version of Ultron, psychotic and unstoppable.

For the film’s final act, Kiwi director Gerard Johnstone (The Conjuring‘s James Wan co-produces and co-writes) goes deliriously and deliciously over the top.  It’s the big finish M3GAN needs–violent, wacky, and hilarious.  By this point, you’re either down for this journey into Looney Tunes territory or not, but I would suggest a conventional ending would’ve sunk the entire movie.

As for acting, Williams and McGraw are a cut above the usual horror protagonists.  McGraw does a great job playing Cady as someone who’s spiritually hollowed by grief.  She alternates between being furious, crestfallen, and aloof.  Williams conveys Gemma’s helplessness, but also her basic decency and desire to do right by her new child.  Both actresses turn their characters into actual human beings, a huge accomplishment for a movie like this.

Props also go to the filmmakers for the character of M3GAN.  Child actress Amie Donald played M3GAN onset, even supplying the android’s Exorcist-style acrobatics.  Meanwhile, Jenna Davis supplies the voice, which is the perfect balance between cheerful and cocoa-puffs kooky.  All this, in conjunction with seamless CGI, turns M3GAN into some good old-fashioned nightmare fuel.

With that said, I’ll return to my point that M3GAN is horror-comedy that leans heavier on the latter.  It’s PG-13, which means Johnstone relies on the things we can’t see to spook us.  And there are some genuinely unsettling moments, but I found myself  chuckling more than anything.  In fact, I would just chuck out labels and enjoy M3GAN for what it is:  A damn good time.

102 min.  PG-13. In theaters and on demand.

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