Back in 2021, James Wan’s Malignant was the little parasitic twin that could, latching onto the internet via tweets, gifs and memes. A horror film about a tortured woman hiding an unfathomable secret, it had a midpoint shift in tone so sudden and deliciously gaudy that there was a compulsive need to tell others about it – as if it were lab-grown for the social media age. Its screenwriter, Akela Cooper, is back with M3GAN, with Wan now a producer. The film’s clearly been coiffed and preened to fit the role of Malignant’s spiritual successor, its trailers built around clips of its star, a killer android doll, shimmying and swaying like a dancer on TikTok.
Unleashed into the cinematic wastelands of early January, M3GAN was under real threat of being both overhyped and underwhelming. Studios have a dismal history of completely misunderstanding the internet’s desires (see: the disastrous rerelease of Morbius, which assumed that the proliferation of memes about “Morbin’ time” equated to people actually wanting to watch Morbius. They did not.) But Cooper, who’s also behind the forthcoming The Nun 2, is a far smarter writer than that. M3GAN – thank god – delivers the goods. Under the canny, high-spirited direction of Gerard Johnstone, whose past work includes the New Zealand horror-comedy gem Housebound, it’s incisive, sardonic and totally mean-spirited. A perfect mix. Maybe it’s not as shocking as Malignant, but it feels exactly like watching Mean Girls queen bee Regina George if someone had given her a knife and a death wish.
Gemma (Allison Williams) works for Funki, a toy company behind the popular, pricey and Furby-adjacent Purrpetual Petz. Her grand vision is of a toy so technologically advanced that it’d be impossible for any rival to replicate it – the Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN, a robot girl who’s crash-landed into the uncanny valley, dressed in the Upper East Side Princess threads of Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf.
When Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law unexpectedly die in a car wreck, she’s landed with temporary protective custody of her niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Parenthood isn’t exactly in her wheelhouse – her mid-century modern home is littered with collectable toys “you don’t actually play with”; her eyes light up with tiny mushroom clouds of frustration whenever someone forgets to use a coaster. M3GAN offers the ideal solution: she can take care of the fussy, pedestrian parts of parenthood, while Cady can help prove the toy’s functionality to her boss (Ronny Chieng). That is, of course, until the murders start.
Cooper could happily have ended things there, with that age-old trope of machines turning against humanity. Or maybe Johnstone could have simply let M3GAN’s Chucky-esque quips carry the whole show. But the film, which mixes the more obvious use of a human body double with an eerily lifelike puppet, pushes its premise to the realm of the gleefully absurd. The real pièce de résistance is a scene in which M3GAN, calmly stroking Cady’s hair, inexplicably breaks into Sia’s “Titanium”. It turns the film into a sort of dark-sided ET, Cooper shifting Cady’s increasing dependence on M3GAN’s friendship into a commentary on how technology comes with the perpetual threat of social disruption and isolation.
Williams is a smart piece of casting here, building off the in-built distrust of her manipulative role in Get Out. She gives Gemma a few more shades of ambiguity: her concerns about Cady seem genuine, but what about her apparent willingness to exploit her niece’s trauma? M3GAN, god bless her, would never do something that treacherous. And that’s, inevitably, the most devilish trick of this film – you end up rooting for the killer doll.
Dir: Gerard Johnstone. Starring: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Ronny Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps. 15, 102 minutes.
‘M3GAN’ is in cinemas from 13 January