It’s all in the face.
Or, in the case of the robotic doll at the heart of “M3GAN,” the face combined with our growing unease with Artificial Intelligence.
The thriller cribs from both “Child’s Play” and “Terminator” for fresh chills and, yes, some laughs. Don’t look now, but we may be at the dawn of yet another horror franchise.
Allison Williams plays Gemma, a robotics engineer on the cusp of a breakthrough. Her prototype doll, dubbed M3GAN, could revolutionize the toy industry. Only her callous boss (a one-note but effective Ronny Chieng) won’t give her the chance.
So she makes the project personal.
Gemma introduces M3GAN to her adopted daughter Cady (Violet McGraw), who lost her parents in the film’s prologue. Gemma thinks a robotic friend could help Cady process her enormous grief and, of course, prove it’s the next Teddy Ruxpin … on steroids.
Only M3GAN proves too good to be true.
The child and robot bond, but along the way we realize M3GAN’s willingness to protect Cady at all costs comes with a body count.
“M3GAN” owes plenty to the titular robot, a creepy ‘bot that touches on our primal fear of toys springing to life. Think “Child’s Play,” “Magic,” “Poltergeist” and other tried-and-true shockers.
This menace is different, though.
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We now rely on Alexa to turn our house lights on and quiz Siri on the latest headlines. A.I. could make artists obsolete, and who knows what innovations will arrive in the coming years?
“M3GAN” unnerves us before opening her mouth.
When she does, though, and it’s clear her A.I. roots have sinister intentions, the film shakes past its sleepy first act.
Director Gerard Johnstone (the excellent “Housebound“) knows the material needs an occasional light touch. Black humor leavens more than a few scenes, and it’s handled with surprising finesse.
Williams offers a strong anchor for material that, by design, must go off the rails in the finale. Her attempts at parenting aren’t perfect, another deft touch in a genre film that doesn’t demand that level of dedication.
The film’s ability to explore grief, and artificial means of coping with it, is another treat.
The rest falls on M3GAN, a triumph of design and execution. She’s oddly beautiful like most dolls, but there’s something adult in her demeanor that adds a frosty layer of concern.
What has Gemma unleashed?
The film wraps in a crush of bloodshed and action, but it’s delivered with a populist shock sure to rouse audiences. Barring a box office catastrophe, this isn’t the last time M3GAN will grace movie screens.
HiT or Miss: “M3GAN” is a smart, aggressively wicked tale of our understandable fear of A.I., delivered with a Kewpie Doll’s grin.