M3GAN’s humor proves more compelling than its horror

Introduction

Hello kweens and kings. This is a review for M3gan. M3gan is a horror comedy film directed by Gerard Johnstone. More important than the director is its producer James Wan — who fans of the horror genre should be familiar with. I have very mixed thoughts on M3gan. I think it was an enjoyable experience but it’s hard to say it’s anything other than disappointing. There are two things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about its satirical tone and I want to talk about its horror elements. I’ll conclude by talking about its potential.

Background

New Zealand director Gerard Johnstone has made horror films and sitcom series which makes him perfect to direct a horror comedy film like M3gan. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with Johnstone’s work but if you care about the horror genre you should know the name of the producer of M3gan — James Wan. Wan became known when he directed and co-wrote the film Saw with his friend Leigh Whannell. These two went on to make a horror empire through the Saw franchise and its numerous sequels. If Wan had only made Saw he would be a very notable director in the horror genre but he went on to be a fairly influential filmmaking producer. After Saw III, Wan teamed up with Whannel again to make Insidious which became its own horror franchise. After that Wan directed The Conjuring which became another horror franchise. After back-to-back-to-back successful horror franchise launches, Wan changed gears and directed Furious 7 — the first film in the franchise to make over a billion dollars. That lined him up to direct Aquaman which also made a billion dollars.

Wan’s track record means he can do pretty much anything he wants and we got our first glimpse of that with the 2021 film Malignant. Malignant was written in collaboration with Akela Cooper and it is an incredibly silly horror film. It’s the type of movie that has a concept so absurd you have to imagine it would’ve been struck down by any producer who took their work seriously, but if you’re James Wan you can push through those sorts of barriers. Malignant plays its scares straight, but it’s appeal isn’t its horror chops. That movie found a fandom because its whacky concept is entertaining and borderline comedic. Personally, I would call Malignant a bad movie. I’d give it a 2 out of 5. However, it has some fantastic set pieces at the end which make up for its very dull first two acts.

Anyway, the reason all of that is relevant is because it showed James Wan had a big enough name to indulge in borderline bad ideas and have fun with it and still find success. M3gan has given every indication it is another Malignant. It is again written by Akela Cooper and James Wan, it straddles the line between horror and comedy, and it has a very silly premise. Horror comedy has always been a genre, but it is exciting to see one of the most prolific filmmakers of today lean into making films that are intended to be horror and comedy. In my experience, the comedy in horror is usually incidental. The skill of building tension and releasing it is used in both horror and comedy, so there’s an overlap that can sometimes unintentionally be read as either scary or funny. Ari Aster or Sam Raimi are great examples of this. M3gan is one of those films that wants to be scary as much it wants to be funny.

Premise

M3gan is focused on the story of Gemma, a roboticist for a toy company who becomes the guardian for her niece Cady after a tragic family accident. Gemma isn’t equipped to be a mother for a kid she doesn’t know, so she decides to expose Cady to her new prototype robotic doll called Megan. I’m assuming the number 3 isn’t part of the pronunciation but rather a SEO strategy so people can google the movie more easily. Shortly after her introduction to Megan, Cady and her new doll get overly attached to one another. This inevitably leads to development problems for Cady and artificial learning problems for M3gan. Gemma is at the center of all of his since she needs to preserve her relationship with her niece Cady while also proving Megan is a commercially viable product suitable for her employer to mass market.

Satirical tone

M3gan starts strong by signaling its self-awareness to the moral depravity of its concept. This film opens with a commercial for a similar doll to Megan. This singalong commercial’s lyrics, tone, and choreography all feel like the filmmakers winking to the audience to make sure we’re in on the joke. The intent of these products is made transparent with lines like “your toy will live longer than you will.” This is a selling point because it means you don’t have to keep buying new toys for your kid, you can stick to this one insanely expensive product. The humor in this opening is akin to a Paul Verhoeven movie like Starship Troopers or Robocop where the characters react to what’s going on as if it’s normal but we the audience obviously find it insane.

I liked this satirical tone for M3gan because it opens its premise to a salient critique of the tech industry. Megan — as an artificial companion — has a clear allegory to smartphone devices. The movie understands this connection and integrates the general critique of smartphones with the story of Megan and Cady. At first, Cady get very attached to Megan and it’s viewed as a relief for the main character Gemma. Cady has obviously suffered a traumatic experience and someone like Gemma — an aunt with no real connection to this girl — can’t really fill the void Cady is experiencing. There is a short term victory in seeing Cady interact with another being and feeling comfortable and natural in that socialization, but of course this doesn’t last long. Cady begins to prefer Megan to other alternatives, not unlike social media addiction where young kids (or adults, honestly) begin to perform for this fake abstraction of real life. This aspect of the story is played satirically — both in how Cady and Megan talk to one another and in how the corporate executives hope to improve the Megan product. I thought all of the satire elements landed really well and were genuinely funny. I was also pleasantly surprised that the humor of the movie moved the story in a direction that was genuinely touching at times. My favorite scene was when Gemma has to pitch Megan’s functionality to her employer and the arc of that scene begins with a hilarious presentation gone wrong but ends on a surprisingly endearing note. It is all undergirded by this skepticism of whether any of the people in this situation are actually doing something good for Cady or the world in general. You can condense everything good about M3gan in that one scene which is pretty early in the movie.

M3gan is one of those post-pandemic films that feel like they were made for a modern audience. I’ve talked about this in my other reviews for movies like Kimi and Emily the Criminal, but I like that M3gan feels like a movie that understands what its audience is facing every day. The general public has been incredibly skeptical and cynical about big tech’s interference with children’s development and yet I think this is the first movie I’ve seen that integrates that into its story.

Horror elements

I found the satirical critique of tech to be the best part of M3gan but at some point it becomes an actual horror film. It turns out the machine-learning AI robot with an attachment to a temperamental child ends up concluding some dubious moral logic. It was obvious the Megan doll was going to turn evil at some point — I think that’s baked into the premise — but I was disappointed the descent of the doll’s morality was so arbitrary. It really feels like the story was written with a sticky note on page 50 that says “now the doll is evil.” Especially because I think there was some genuine conflict established in the early parts of the film between Cady and Gemma. Cady is a traumatized child and Gemma is a poor caretaker, which means the resolution to their conflict is going to result in both parties doing things they don’t really want to do but it’s best for both of them. This is already an interesting dynamic because it’s so challenging for two characters we like and it is made even harder when one side of that conflict has this ceaseless robot advocate who encourages Cady’s worst behavior. Megan encourages Cady to isolate herself and avoid her problems because Megan doesn’t want Cady to be uncomfortable. That conflict is a piece of the horror elements of this movie — as Megan becomes more antagonistic to Gemma — but most of the horror elements are not that personal or complex. They’re all centered on Megan terrorizing some ancillary side character who doesn’t really matter.

I also didn’t find the Megan doll to have any real presence in the movie. This may be due to the doll only targeting non-important characters and it may also be due to the film’s PG-13 rating. Either way, Megan never felt threatening the way other horror villains do. Even compared to Chucky — another doll-sized villain who’s threat ability seems laughable at best. Megan didn’t even accomplish that level of unease for me. I can’t pinpoint the exact culprit for this failure, so I think it’s a combination of many things.

The best horror stories can be distilled into a single fear. This predates modern filmmaking. Zombies are the fear of death, werewolves are the fear of human rage, vampires are the fear of sexual manipulation, and etc. The best horror films have a similar core fear motivating what makes them scary. Hereditary is the fear of trauma and a broken family. Saw is the fear of your past coming to torment you — literally. Get Out is the fear of racial prejudice masquerading as acceptance and etc. M3gan could’ve been about a fear of losing your child to social isolation, or it could’ve been a fear of robots, or a fear of a creepy doll. I don’t think it picked any one of these fears so the horror elements feel dispersed across a few different options and none of them feel compelling.

Closing thoughts

M3gan is a horror comedy film but it abandons its comedic tone in favor of traditional horror but it doesn’t have any convincing scares. I’d give this movie a 3 out of 5. I liked the satirical elements the best in this movie but those are slowly abandoned. The shift to horror is let down by the central villain’s unimposing presence and the general tone of the film not lending itself to any relatable fear. M3gan’s viewing experience is like an anti-Malignant. My experience with Malignant was it was a dull movie that eventually blossomed into this very entertaining concept. M3gan is the opposite. It starts with a fantastic concept and you’re excited to see where it goes but it doesn’t live up to your expectations. That doesn’t take away from the enjoyment you can have from the first half, but it leaves you feeling disappointed.

The good news is this movie has already made back its $12 million budget six times over and it’s only the second weekend. So this will likely be another James Wan-endorsed horror franchise. I think there’s a lot of potential to this concept and I’d be open to a sequel, but for this first installment I’d only recommend it to people who are already into these types of movies already.

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