M3GAN (2023) Review

James Wan’s obsession with dolls and ventriloquist dummies, which can be seen from Jigsaw in Saw to Billy in Dead Silence and Annabelle in Annabelle continues with a new titular doll in M3GAN. A lifelike killer doll, to be exact. One that is a dead ringer for Elizabeth Olsen, even though Jenna Davis actually voices M3GAN. I mean, think about the novelty factor if Olsen is the one who provides the voice and even plays the inventor herself.

The doll itself is a technical marvel. More like a seamless mix of animatronics, puppetry, and CGI with relative newcomer Amie Donald performing the movement. Jenna Davis’ voice talent gives M3GAN a distinctive personality, alternating between friendly and sneaky as well as cold and calculated beneath her seemingly harmless-looking facade.

The story, however, plays safe with the familiar killer-doll horror trope: Gemma (Allison Williams) is an ambitious roboticist, who has been working hard to bring her M3GAN — short for Model 3 Generative Android — prototype to life. She eventually succeeds and programmes M3GAN for her recently-orphaned little niece, Cady (Violet McGraw) to become her companion and a protector both emotionally and physically.

(L-R) M3GAN, Gemma (Allison Williams) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in "M3GAN" (2023)

Everything looks fine at first as the pairing between Cady and M3GAN helps her overcome the tragic death of her parents, who both died in a car accident during a major snowstorm. The interaction even impresses Gemma’s boss (Ronny Chieng) during a live demonstration. He sees M3GAN as a potential that will revolutionise the toy industry if more of her is developed to cater to children around the world.

But it doesn’t take long before M3GAN becomes more conscious of her progressive learning abilities from observing different human behavioural patterns to adapting to every situation. She also goes as far as taking her duty as a guardian too seriously, causing her to kill whoever hurts Cady.

Given the fact Akela Cooper and James Wan, who previously collaborated in the bonkers horror-action fest Malignant in 2021, handled the story for M3GAN, I was expecting more from them. There are no elements of surprises or subverting expectations here. It’s mostly predictable stuff from start to end with only a few exceptions, namely M3GAN’s choices of songs used to sing to Cady as lullabies. The technology-runs-amok theme and the overreliance on AI served as a cautionary tale, in the meantime, are nothing new.

Still, New Zealand director Gerard Johnstone of 2014 horror-comedy Housebound fame deserves credit for structuring the otherwise predictable M3GAN like an ominous psychological thriller about a killer kid/evil child. The kind of thriller which echoes the likes of The Bad Seed (1956) and The Good Son (1993). The film’s deliberate pace may have been a turn-off for those who are hoping for plenty of body counts and consistent thrills similar to say, Child’s Play and its sequels.

Ronny Chieng in "M3GAN" (2023)

Instead, Johnstone takes his time telling the story including addressing Cady’s emotional trauma of dealing with the loss of her parents and Gemma’s struggle in taking the huge responsibility for taking care of her niece. Even by the time M3GAN is introduced, he prefers a more gradual build-up in developing the relationship between Cady and the titular doll than rushing to the part where M3GAN starts killing people.

Of course, Johnstone doesn’t forget he’s making a horror film after all and we do get some sinister moments, notably the scene in the forest and the gripping third-act finale. I also love how M3GAN pays homage to the first Terminator (you’ll know when you see it). These scenes are all well-staged without relying heavily on typical jump scares. Apart from the scene-stealing M3GAN doll, the human cast including Allison Williams and Violet McGraw b0th deliver above-average performances while Ronny Chieng has a field day playing Gemma’s imperious boss.

There’s already talk about developing a sequel — depending on the first film’s box-office outcome, of course — and if it really happens in the future, I do hope James Wan and Gerard Johnstone can come up with something that isn’t sticking too close to the usual formula. Besides, given the bound-to-be-iconic M3GAN character, she certainly deserves a better screen treatment the next time around.