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M3GAN Review: A robot doll plays and slays in a horror comedy that pulls all the right strings

Allison Williams stars as a robotics engineer who creates a killer guardian for her young niece in the latest from Blumhouse

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M3GAN
M3GAN
Image: Universal Pictures

From the moment she was revealed, M3GAN was an instant icon for a horror fandom in love with eerily autonomous dolls. With a face planted firmly in the uncanny valley and dance moves so fluid as to be off-putting, it’s no wonder that the cybernetic horror villain became beloved meme fodder months before her film even came out. So how well does M3GAN hold up to the hype? Remarkably well, though folks expecting a film as gonzo as screenwriter Akela Cooper’s previous horror sensation, Malignant, aren’t going to get quite the same left-field intensity this time around.

After her parents die in a car accident, 8-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). Even though Gemma wants to live up to her late sister’s wishes to act as Cady’s guardian, she’s too bogged down by her job developing prototype robotic toys. However, inspiration strikes when Gemma decides to refit her in-development android M3GAN to act as the perfect companion to the grieving girl. As Cady and M3GAN’s connection grows stronger, M3GAN’s learning algorithm begins to contemplate the nature of death and starts taking its directive to keep Cady safe to murderous extremes.

For as patently silly and self-aware as M3GAN is about the absurdity of its premise, it actually presents a fairly prescient thesis on the dangers of offloading parental responsibility onto babysitting technology. Gemma, distracted by the professional glory that M3GAN’s launch is about to bring her, technically holds the legal position of Cady’s guardian, although the actual tasks of nurturing and caring for Cady fall to a toy, creating a codependent relationship that distracts from the young girl’s ability to grieve. Allusions to limited screen time and post-traumatic attachment would be throwaway lines in a lesser film seeking to cheaply capitalize on technophobic fears. But here they feed powerfully relatable character arcs that the film treats with appropriate gravity, threading a tonal needle so specific that it’s a testament to not just the talents of Williams and McGraw talents, but to director Gerard Johnstone’s ability to coordinate them to sell these tragic characters as the protagonists of a horror comedy.

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Because, let’s be frank, M3GAN revels in its gleefully twisted antagonist. Amie Donald’s physical performance is as robotically stilted as it is alternatingly tender and violent, while Jenna Davis’ pitch-shifted voice gives the character malice hidden behind a saccharine mechanical sweetness. It’s a combined performance of contrasts that kicks into comic absurdity when M3GAN runs on all fours to tackle a kid and rip his ear off, while a moment as simple as singing La Roux’s “Bulletproof” as a lullaby creates an emotional disconnect that is equally horrific and hilarious. If the strong themes underlying Cooper’s screenplay are the bones, then the meat is in the moments when M3GAN gets let off the leash.

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In fact, the relative restraint with which the film treats M3GAN’s violence might be the main thing holding M3GAN back from true genre greatness. It’s reductive to entirely blame a PG-13 rating for this shortcoming, but some of the most explicit kills are implied by a cut or by happening just out of frame, so the film feels fairly bloodless even as the body count rises. It’s an understandable creative choice—after all, PG-13 is a more accessible rating to the demographic making M3GAN fancams on TikTok–but it’s a choice that should have been worked out before having to reshoot scenes to secure the lesser rating, because the obvious cutting around the violence leaves the film feeling tamer than it should be.

Even so, M3GAN is a blast, especially with a crowd that’s game to laugh along with a doll’s ominous stare and her inhumanly humorous attempts to be the perfect best friend. Though the contortionist-level juxtaposition of an American Girl murderbot should probably be more viscerally satisfying, Cooper’s offbeat humor and Johnstone’s ability to build tension with her characters make for a potent combination. M3GAN may have been iconic before we ever heard her utter a word, but seeing her in action cements her as a worthy addition to the movie monster pantheon. Long may her franchise slay.