A pleasantly nutty thriller about a crafty, high-end toy, “M3GAN” exploits a child’s grief for the greater good of the killer-doll genre. That may be enough for 100 minutes of your early January.
The writer Philip K. Dick once asked: Do androids dream of electric sheep? M3GAN, which stands for “Model 3 Generative Android,” looks as if she/it dreams only of Nicole Kidman in “To Die For.” She’s a fast learner, this wide-eyed miracle of artificial intelligence and machine learning — mean girl, nice girl and killing spree all wrapped up in distinctive dance stylings, interesting eyewear, cunning emotional manipulation skills, and a way of running through the woods like a wolf in a skirt. Also — this part is great — she boasts an unerring sense of exactly when her primary human companion, a grief-stricken young girl, needs comforting, and a few bars of the sappiest you’ve-got-a-friend-in-me ballad in the history of song.
There is, of course, a human element to the story, even if robotics expert Gemma (Allison Williams) never quite seems human herself. Gemma works for the Hasbro-like toy firm Funki, maker of the talking, pooping “PurrpetualPetz.” Squirreling away research funds for their under-the-radar development of M3GAN, Gemma and her design colleagues Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez) come up with a game-changer: M3GAN, an American Girl for the rest of us, carrying a $10,000 price tag (in other words, squarely in the American Girl range). The Funki CEO (Ronny Chieng) sees nothing but dollar signs.
Who needs parents with this silicon-encased wonder around? M3GAN runs a tiptop homeschooling operation; she makes jokes; she listens; she reminds you to put the toilet seat down, and wash your hands after using. The “M3GAN” prologue takes place pre-M3GAN, with a fatal, snowy car crash that robs Gemma’s preteen niece Cady (Violet McGraw) of her parents and lands the child in the clueless protective custody of her aunt. When Gemma realizes that an early robotic invention of hers is the one source of consolation in Katy’s new life, it’s a quick montage and a couple of minutes of screen time to bring M3GAN into beta working order.
The movie, written with some actual wit by “Malignant” scribe Akela Cooper, tracks the results, and the resulting body count. Director Gerard Johnstone brings little style but some hacky verve to a film that slips all over the road in terms of tone but isn’t dull about it.
At its best, this is a horror comedy, and its antiheroine has learned all her tricks from previous movies. The second an annoying neighbor (Lori Dungey) and her snarling pet dog show up, mentally you’re thinking: killer-doll victims one and two, step right up!
The idea is that M3GAN is both fiercely protective of Cady but also interested in her own developmental health and well-being. The android is played (when we see her portrayed by a human, that is) by Amie Donald and voiced like a whole team of Bratz dolls by Jenna Davis.
The dumbest thing about “M3GAN” is its dumbest character: Gemma, both as written and as played by Williams, may be the lowest-IQ parental unit in cinema, certainly in the killer-doll genre. The audience sees all the danger signs long before Gemma does, and she doesn’t do squat to make Cady’s anguished transition from one life to another any easier. It wouldn’t have killed the creative team to make the movie’s robotics expert a little less … robotic?
On the other hand, who remembers anything about the “Child’s Play” movies other than Chucky? At heart, though technically she lacks one, M3GAN is the love child of HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Haley Joel Osment in “A.I.” I suspect this will be a hit for Blumhouse Productions: It’s modestly budgeted and just funny enough, intentionally, to take your brain off the eye-rolling bits. “M3GAN” offers plenty of sadistic mayhem (nail guns, etc.) comfortably ensconced inside a PG-13 rating.
Some reasonably diverting time-wasters go in one eye and out the other. But it’s January, as previously mentioned.
3 stars (out of 4)
Rated: PG-13 (for violent content and terror, some strong language, and a suggestive reference)
Running time: 1:42
How to watch: In theaters