When a parent gives their child a new toy, it really is a gift for both of them, because the hours of fun that keep the little one busy also give their caregiver some free time. When a working-from-home mom or dad needs an afternoon to whip up some spreadsheets, or just needs some damn rest during the final stages of a road trip, it’s tempting enough to put a kid in front of Bluey and to call it day. However, past a certain saturation point, this becomes an easy escape from parenthood that can have ruinous consequences as development progresses. The digitization of playtime — with kiddie settings now on tablets, where auto-playing streams draw from infinite on-demand content libraries — has renewed the question of what detrimental effects next-gen technology could have on the squishy, impressionable brains of ours urgently made precious angels. At the forefront of this insidious threat is M3gan.
Standing 4 feet tall and equipped with the most advanced artificial intelligence modern programming has to offer, the “Model 3 Generative Android” represents the final frontier in killer dolly narratives. She sings. She dances. She wants to be your best friend and will use the blade of an industrial paper cutter to massacre anyone who stands in her way. In her self-titled, star-making movie vehicle, which was released in US cinemas last weekend and in UK cinemas this week, M3gan tows a sublime line of gory toys into the future with a perfectly timed flair for campy fun.
At first glance, it looks like a stellar example of something straight forward – a horror film about an American girl turned bad, whose tongue-in-cheek genre elements stretch over commentary on the perils of screen time like a silicone skin over a cybernetic faceplate. But the all-too-human dynamic between M3gan and her creator has a sneaky depth that puts her a grisly cut above the rest of the little rogue’s gallery. It is presented as the most progressive of its kind, a claim that has also proved true in the literary sense; Her operating system is so nuanced that she can cross the threshold of sensation to push the material horrors of parenthood into the realm of the existential.
Ever since The Twilight Zone’s malicious talky Tina sent Mom’s new husband downstairs to an untimely death, dolls have wielded a simple but terrifying power in the public imagination. We get the willies of clear-eyed plastic toddlers for the same reason clowns do, the aesthetic of childlike innocence ends up in a most unsettling place when they miss the mark. (On that front, M3gan plunges right into the eerie valley, the character’s eerily lifelike visage made possible by a seeming combination of CGI in some shots and animatronics in others.) More recent franchise leaders like apple-cheeked Annabelle and Jared Kushner look-alikes Brahms: The Boy II has come a long way with that superficial scary factor alone, lacking personality in films with lots of atmosphere. Both owe a debt to witty sociopath Chucky, whose insane sense of humor and mischievous charm have propelled him to fame beyond the Child’s Play movies.
The final installment, the 2019 sequel/reboot that recycles the original title, upgraded Chucky from a supernatural ship for the vengeful spirit of a serial killer to a WiFi-enabled device with a short-circuited security protocol. However, plugging it into the “Internet of Things” does not make a smart toy; He’s never really explored the full ramifications of his synthetic form, while M3gan’s frighteningly lucid personality is her driving force as a tragic villain. Developed by bumbling roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) to fill the parent-shaped hole in the heart of grieving niece Cady (Violet McGraw), left in her care, the wire-and-microchip pal starts out helpful and harmless. But the machine learning ability that allows M3gan to form a deep emotional connection with her paired user soon erases some of the key differences that separate her from a real girl. As little Cady sees M3gan as alive, so does the doll herself, and the script adapts to accommodate her adaptability.
Screenwriter Akela Cooper (the pen behind 2021’s similarly goofy Malignant) uses AI to address the universal anxiety parents experience when they realize their child is an autonomous being beyond their control. A real baby isn’t much different from a Baby Born, a creature of necessity with no opinions or ideas, being acted upon by outside forces—until that awful day when the offspring say the word “no” for the first time and everything goes one will negotiate wills. Because M3gan’s online connectivity means she can answer her own incessant questions about why the skies are blue or how planes stay aloft, she absorbs information at a frightening, reckless speed and accordingly matures at warp speed. Cooper is perceptive about the tedious and unnerving ways in which children accumulate and use knowledge, putting M3gan in the recognizable role of a naughty know-it-all. Like every precocious sponge his own mother, she worries about Gemma by knowing things they aren’t taught at home and angers her by using her lessons of good behavior against her.Allison Williams and Violet McGraw in M3gan. Photo Credit: Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures
M3gan’s rapid development also brings her in record time to the inner crises of puberty, the concept of the Cartesian subject presumably in the search history of her hard drive. In a climactic confrontation with Gemma, she delivers spiky dialogue about her resentment at being brought into a world she wasn’t prepared for, an echo of every surly teenager yelling about how they never asked to be born will. (Gemma’s shelf of mint collectibles features figurines of a Kaiju Frankenstein monster and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, cinema’s first self-aware machine.) This insane growth is crippling M3gan’s simulated psychology as she enters an Oedipal phase punctuated by the Desire to fit into Gemma’s life as the ideal wife and daughter at the same time.
During their mano-a-mano showdown, Cady is woken out of bed by fist punches, but when she asks from the end of the hall if everything’s okay, M3gan and Gemma both reply, “We don’t fight!” in the same tone as two arguing parents trying to keep a front of togetherness for the sake of their offspring. M3gan’s unlimited functionality is designed to arm her for any situation, an elasticity that melds youthful jealousy with grown-up possessiveness in a deliciously deviant mentality.
An impromptu hug on social media suggests M3gan could have the staying power of a Freddy or Jason, treated as a mutant quantity of the character rather than an iconic prop on par with Saw’s tricycle ventriloquist dummy, Jigsaw. Their three-dimensionality raises the most unsettling question of all, inviting us to wonder uncomfortably how long it will be before inanimate objects begin to claim rights and dignity, and whether we are right to expect to be deprived of so much. As with any adolescent boy or girl, we overlook their independence at our peril; only when the devastating consequences have already set in can we see that there is no substitute for old-fashioned hands-on grooming. Responsibility for an unruly creature beyond our comprehension will always be far more terrifying than a glass eyeball or a porcelain face.