How M3GAN Became a Comedy Icon for the A.I. Age
Creepy dolls are a fixture of horror cinema. There was Chucky. There was Annabelle. And now there’s M3GAN, the brainchild of a roboticist, Gemma (Girls’ Allison Williams), who’s determined to craft the greatest piece of A.I.-infused technology that humanity has ever seen. Of course, things don’t go as planned — it never does in horror movies. But M3GAN isn’t just a warning about giving our lives over to automation — it’s also become a celebration of one very snide robot who enjoys killing anybody who messes with her. Gemma didn’t plan on making a murderous machine, but could she have had any idea that M3GAN would end up being so funny?
This Universal release has played up its campy qualities since its initial commercials, presenting its title character as a twerking, moody doll that’s miles more advanced than Teddy Ruxpin back in the day. She seems alive, except not quite, but she’s got plenty of ‘tude, hailed as a queer icon and a viral phenomenon before the film even got released this past weekend, when it made an impressive $30 million. Some horror villains haunt our dreams, but M3GAN is just as concerned with making audiences laugh. That homicidal robot is hardly the first amusing cinematic killer — Freddy Krueger enjoyed delivering a few quips, too — but M3GAN is uniquely positioned as a modern bogeywoman. She represents the fears of our contemporary world but, weirdly, she makes us cheer her on, savoring how vicious she is to the humans around her. The film wants the viewer to root for her. Our deserved downfall is the movie’s darkest joke.
Ostensibly, M3GAN is yet another horror flick about trauma. Young Cady (Violet McGraw) has just survived a terrible car crash that claimed her parents, and soon she’s shipped off to her Aunt Gemma, who doesn’t quite know what to do with her. Gemma isn’t really the touchy-feely type, but her hope is that M3GAN can simulate the sort of human compassion and friendship that she herself seems incapable of. And for a while, it seems like it works: M3GAN’s programming allows her to relate to the devastated Cady, reading her stories and being a confidant. Man, maybe we all need a M3GAN, who’s the perfect babysitter. What can’t technology do?
Of course, as soon as we learn that Gemma has rushed M3GAN’s development, we wait for the android to start short-circuiting. But M3GAN’s dark turn is a product of her creator’s hubris: She’s designed to be loyal to Cady, but she takes the assignment far too seriously, getting violent if anyone so much as threatens to dampen Cady’s day. Where previous creepy cinematic dolls were usually possessed by the souls of evil people, M3GAN is her own diabolical person, trained in the trendiness of the pop culture that infects young girls. She’s fabulous and vindictive, like a supercomputer parody of the Mean Girl who terrifies your kids at their middle school. One moment, she pretends to be sweet — the next, she’s stabbing a dude. M3GAN is a nightmare who’s having a blast getting her way.
Director Gerard Johnstone satirizes our Alexa-driven lives, winking at the audience more than being horrified by our surrendering of our liberties to the A.I., algorithms and autofills that, with more and more frequency, think for us. Usually, these terrors are presented in frightening fashion — think of the Terminator or the bad guys in The Matrix — but M3GAN suggests, perhaps not incorrectly, that the dangers won’t actually look so disturbing. Instead, they’ll come in the form of a pretty doll that sings comforting pop songs and insinuates itself into our life — that is, before it decides we’re expendable.
Because Williams is the film’s biggest star and ostensible main character, you might assume she’s meant to be a sympathetic figure. But her calculating demeanor makes her as awful as the mad scientists of yesteryear who unleashed terrible creations upon the world. As a result, you may find yourself cackling as you watch M3GAN tune her out and do her own thing — hey, at least the doll is fun to be around. Meanwhile, Cady becomes so close to M3GAN, forming a connection far more emotional than the one she has with Gemma, that once Gemma realizes the machine’s potential for menace, she rips it out of the young girl’s life — turning Cady into a shrieking mess.
Any parent who’s tried to quiet their kid by letting them get sucked into a screen, only to then try to take it away from them, will understand the landmine Gemma detonates. In comparison to her self-absorbed, grieving human compatriots, M3GAN doesn’t have a care in the world, flaunting her superior intelligence and DGAF ethos while dancing and killing the morons that come across her path. Her face is so lifeless, and yet she’s livelier than everyone she encounters.
Writer Akela Cooper, a fan of Child’s Play, had been inspired by the rise of A.I. devices in her life. “We wrote this five years ago now,” she said earlier this year. “At the time I was like, ‘A.I. that can have a conversation with you, that can babysit your kids, is weird and creepy. What is going to happen when that evolves?’ … I was always wary about Alexa and Echo. Early on it came out that these devices are listening to you at all times. I don’t need the (National Security Agency) listening in to me talking to myself as I’m writing violent horror scenes.” But while M3GAN goes for humor, Cooper insists, “It’s not like I sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write the craziest shit, and it’s going to be so campy!’ I start with character and story and making them real.”
Maybe so, but M3GAN’s novelty — and also its limitation — stems from how it turns its doomsday scenario of killer technology into a goof on the banality of our imminent irrelevance. M3GAN, who’s voiced by Jenna Davis, is flip and irreverent, a monster with perfect hair. Where other cinematic bogeymen are imposing and unknowable, hiding behind masks and brandishing terrible weapons, she’s a pouty little diva who thinks everyone is lame. She rolls her eyes, she makes a rude comment — as far as she’s concerned, you barely exist. She can kill you with just a look — or, more literally, with a knife or whatever else is handy.
This twist on the creepy-doll trope cleverly lampoons the somber oh-the-humanity depiction of the robot uprising we’ve become accustomed to on the big screen. Once you get the joke, though, it might all be a bit obvious. But there’s also something damning about that. The audiences hooting and hollering at M3GAN’s stone-cold homicidal tendencies — the people who are gleefully memeing her on social media — are, in a sense, rooting on our demise at the hands of the technology we invented, ostensibly, to make our lives easier. Turns out, we’re not scared anymore of the Terminator on the horizon — we know the robot uprising is imminent. Might as well have a laugh about it.