M3gan review: A Black Mirror-esque take on the classic murder puppet
There is a proud cinematic tradition of haunted doll movies. You can trace the lineage back from Annabelle (first appearing in The Conjuring in 2013), through to Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988), all the way back to Hugo the ventriloquist’s dummy from 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night.
Glossy new sci-fi horror M3gan picks up the mantle and adds a harddrive full of Black Mirror-esque techno-dread. The titular robot is plucked straight from the Uncanny Valley, its rubbery silicone face realistic enough to trigger an instinctual sense of revulsion.
M3gan is a secret project by young engineering wizard Gemma, an employee of a company that makes lewd, pooping Furby-adjacent toys. In the opening scenes Gemma gets a dressing down from her obnoxious boss David for her continued work on her uncanny monstrosity when she should be designing a bargain-basement version of the PurrPetual Petz line. In true Frankenstein fashion, she decides to take her work back underground.
Fortuitously, Gemma’s sister is involved in a horrible car crash en route to a ski trip, leaving her in charge of her orphaned niece. What better babysitter for a career-oriented gal than an AI robot?
Young Cady forms an immediate and intense bond with M3gan, the robot able to anticipate her every need, even reminding her to flush the toilet and wash her hands without getting on her wick. Alas Gemma appears not to have read the work of Isaac Asimov before programming M3gan and the robot soon starts offing anything deemed a threat to Cady, be that a neighbour’s dog or an obnoxious child.
Like Microsoft’s infamous AI chatbot that became racist after a few days on Twitter, M3gan learns from the people around her and soon becomes a hideous reflection of humanity, picking up spite and violence just as easily as she learned compassion and empathy.
The film works because M3gan herself is so brilliantly realised through a combination of animatronics and CGI. Her movements are so very, very close to human and yet alien enough to be consistently disturbing. As she blossoms into a fully-fledged murder-bot she even performs a creepy little dance routine, which has since become a Tik Tok sensation and incredibly effective promotional tool.
One of the film’s key concerns is the dangers of palming off parenting to computers – while M3gan is the antagonist here, the real danger is screen time (or should that be scream time?).
There are some lingering questions: why is M3gan so hard to shut down? Why would the world’s foremost expert in AI and robotics be working for the equivalent of Hasbro? Why, when designing a children’s toy, would you make it so strong?
Like the recent revival of The Invisible Man, M3gan brings a fresh lick of paint to an age-old story – the result being a smart, propulsive horror movie that feels both timeless and brand new.