Technology run amok and killer dolls (from “The Twilight Zone’s” Talking Tina to Chucky) are hardly new ideas, but “M3GAN” nevertheless finds a way to smartly add to the genre, with a crisp and funny horror tale made tastier because it’s set about 10 minutes in the future. For parents concerned about kids glued to screens, the prospect of a murderous android companion sounds like there but for the grace of Hasbro go I.
Produced by horror factory Blumhouse and “The Conjuring’s” James Wan (who shares story credit with screenwriter Akela Cooper), the film stars Allison Williams as the equivalent of a well-intentioned mad scientist whose best-laid plans go horrifically wrong.
Adding to her horror credentials from “Get Out,” Williams’ Gemma is forced to take in her suddenly orphaned nine-year-old niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), who lost mom and dad in a car accident. Gemma is single and devoted to her work, which happens to involve developing products as a roboticist for a toy company, including something amusingly called Purrpetual Petz, the perfect high-tech pet for a kid previously traumatized by burying a furry friend.
Gemma, however, has set her sights on a more ambitious product, a human-like android that bonds with its child owner and learns from their interactions. At a loss for how to deal with Cady, she gives her the prototype to the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short, filling the void in the girl’s life while impressing her high-strung boss (Ronny Chieng) with its tantalizing commercial possibilities.
M3GAN is a marvel, with only a few minor glitches at first that ought to alarm everyone a little more than they do. (Add the characters here to the list of people who weren’t watching “Westworld,” or more accurately, the book and 1970s movies that preceded it.)
Of course, the good times can’t last, as M3GAN’s desire to protect Cady and spare her pain becomes increasingly aggressive, and occasionally deliciously dark and funny.
Director Gerard Johnstone builds up nicely toward those moments, smartly taking its time before the casualties and coincidences start piling up. The film is also a savvy rumination on the perils of letting technology serve as the ultimate babysitter, with Cady becoming a bit of a little monster herself when deprived of M3GAN’s company.
In that sense, “M3GAN” deftly threads the needle in terms of serving as a warning and still delivering the requisite tension and horror within its modest means and the confines of a PG-13 rating, all in a generally crowd-pleasing fashion. Even Gemma’s cluelessness about child rearing mostly works on a comedic level, eliciting the intended groans.
Horror has been among the most reliable genres at the box office since the pandemic began, and “M3GAN” seems poised to continue that streak. If so, M3GAN might not be the last model to roll off the Blumhouse assembly line.
“M3GAN” premieres January 6 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.