By Nicole Veneto
M3GAN is a movie algorithmically generated to spawn as many memes about itself as possible before undiscerning viewers realize what they’re watching is a reworked Black Mirror draft.
M3GAN, directed by Gerald Johnstone. Screening at Somerville Theater, Kendall Square Cinema, AMC Boston Common, and other New England moviehouses.
I normally don’t go out of my way to see something in cinemas I suspect is going to be bad. This goes especially for January releases, a period traditionally reserved by film studios and distributors to dump their cheapest and most mediocre crap on the big screens to make a quick buck before winter malaise sets in. Besides, my time is too precious to waste on making the trek out to the local AMC just to be bored and/or irritated for 2 hours. So why in the hell did I see M3GAN, a real “Fuck you, it’s January!” movie that’ll probably make back four times its budget thanks to the tried and true Blumhouse model? (A sequel is already in the works, because of course it is.)
Well, I was at an IMAX screening of Evangelion 3.0+1.0 and somehow the trailer for M3GAN played twice in a row, much to the amusement of everyone in the audience. By this point last year the trailer had already gone viral thanks to a scene where the titular uncanny-valley robot doll does a TikTok dance before brandishing a paper cutter to do some stabbing with. The second time the trailer played I got my phone out and took pictures so I could post a silly little tweet that might get a few likes on Film Twitter. Lo and behold, whoever runs the official M3GAN account has the word “M3GAN” flagged because they quote-tweeted me with an overused Mean Girls gif. After inadvertently playing into Blumhouse’s marketing campaign, multiple people asked if I was going to be writing a M3GAN review, curious to know my thoughts on a potential new horror “icon” in the cinematic canon.
If it weren’t obvious already, my thoughts are that M3GAN sucks. It’s a movie algorithmically generated to spawn as many memes about itself as possible before undiscerning viewers realize what they’re watching is a reworked Black Mirror draft. It’s a bloodless Child’s Play clone, sanded down and sanitized for inattentive TikTok teens. It offers none of the outrageous gore or campy horror Chucky can always be counted on for. As self-aware as M3GAN is of itself — which is NOT the same thing as camp and people need to STOP conflating the two — any fun to be had is severely handicapped by its discretionary PG-13 rating. (According to director Gerard Johnstone, the movie is scarier edited down from an R to a PG-13, to which I riposte, bullshit.) If I’m going to see a movie about a killer doll then I want to see over-the-top kills and wacky murder set pieces, not discretionary PG-13 cutaways that knock all the fun out of it!
The plot of M3GAN is simple enough to be condensed into a half hour crappy Twilight Zone episode. Allison Williams (of Girls and Get Out fame) plays Gemma, a robotics engineer who designs toys for the Funki corporation, which specializes in tight deadlines and creative suppression. When her estranged sister and her husband are killed by a snowplow while driving to a ski resort (literally barreling straight at them like a CG Lumière train), Gemma is given custody of her traumatized young niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Completely unprepared for the responsibility of guardianship, Gemma has a brilliant idea. Program a robot she and her engineering team have been working on behind the company’s back to be the perfect companion for Cady: M3GAN, short for Model 3 Generative Android, a 4 foot 10 doll-like android with an uncanny resemblance to a young Taylor Momsen run through several Snapchat filters. What happens next will not surprise you in the least.
It’s actually pretty stunning that this movie has been so positively received considering it’s a hack job attempt at making Chucky appeal to terminally online zoomers. The dialogue is riddled with the sort of obnoxious Whedonspeak people frequently bash Marvel movies for. Somehow it is even more demeaning here. Williams frequently prefaces everything she says with, “Well, actually…”, and not a scene goes by without referencing social media applications like Tinder. Even Tesla gets a shout out! Though co-written by the mind behind 2021’s bat-shit horror hit Malignant, M3GAN easily could have been penned by any talentless Hollywood writer-for-hire.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about M3GAN is that the central concept is ripe for cultivating a much more layered socio-political critique: the ease with which we let surveillance technology into our personal lives at the cost of our own privacy, the digital commodification of women and their emotional labor a’la artificial intelligence, how Big Tech and bloodless Silicon Valley vampires exploit our own alienation for profit, so on and so forth. Rather, M3GAN settles for being another cautionary tale against giving kids too much unsupervised screen time.
The final straw for me came in the form of Ronny Chieng, a comedian and former Daily Show correspondent who plays Gemma’s high-strung boss. As Funki’s demanding CEO, Chieng delivers a performance so grating on the senses that I wanted to get up and leave the theater altogether. Every time he appeared on screen I felt the same guttural revulsion I experience whenever James Corden or Rebel Wilson show up in a movie — I just wanted him to go away and leave me alone. I genuinely don’t know whether the pronounced east Asian accent Chieng puts on is a part of his comedic persona, a way to ingratiate himself to white audiences, or if his character is supposed to be a parodic stereotype. Whatever, as soon as he started screaming for his assistant to get him a kombucha, whatever ironic appreciation I could have felt towards M3GAN dissipated into pure annoyance.
There’s not an original idea at work here, and yet we’ve reached the point where our media landscape is so inundated with reboots, remakes, and sequels that whenever a movie not based on a pre-existing IP makes a profit, it’s a feat worth celebrating. Thing is that M3GAN is about as original as the degenerate Furbie knockoffs Funki sells. The movie wants to be Child’s Play so desperately that it is even taking potshots at Chucky on Twitter in an attempt to drum up viral interest by setting up beef between two verified accounts. It’s really quite pathetic, yet people are eating it up without a second thought (it currently holds a whopping 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
On that note, M3GAN’s aggressive marketing campaign reeks of cynicism. What’s being advertised isn’t the content of the film or the experiences of seeing it in theaters, but M3GAN as a memeable “yass kween slay mama” icon. Over on Twitter, the writer of fellow Blumhouse production Freaky went so far as to credit “queer people” for M3GAN’s success. This claim is only true if the “queer community” in question is actually a boardroom full of Universal and Blumhouse suits planning a blatantly astro-turfed marketing campaign.
People wonder and complain about why A24’s “elevated horror” output has become so dominant within the current cultural landscape. The truth is that, more than anything else, stuff like M3GAN is lowering the bar for American horror features. It’s like keys being jingled in your face. Unfortunately, this is the sort of slop that’s going to be praised for its “originality” when there’s nothing new being done or said whatsoever. So do yourself a favor and just say no to M3GAN. If you’re looking for something new in horror, then go check out Skinamarink and scare yourself to death staring at the corner of a room for an hour and forty minutes. It’s a better use of your time.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.