Sunday, September 24, 2023

‘M3gan’ is a Model 3 Delight

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January and February are trash months for theaters. Historically it’s when the studios dump their worst offerings, hoping no one will notice because, statistically, no one goes to the theater during these months. But sometimes a movie like M3gan drops, and suddenly going to the film doesn’t seem so bad.

M3gan is a science fiction/horror movie with a strange heart and a sly sense of humor. Gerard Johnstone and screenwriter Akela Cooper are tuned into the same frequency, resulting in a beautiful trashy time at the cinema. It is a crowd-pleaser that has as much fun as the audience does as it leaps from implausible point to the next.

M3gan (physically played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) with Cady (Violet McGraw)

Cooper’s script is a masterpiece of genre-blending and tightrope-walking. M3gan could have easily been just fun trash cinema but that it’s effective in terms of its drama is a testament to Cooper, Johnstone, and its stars. A story about a young girl Cady (Violet McGraw), who loses her parents and is shipped off to her genius roboticist, aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who gives her a lifesize robot to befriend, who could have quickly gone off the rails.

Instead, we are gifted with tongue-in-cheek horror melodrama where everything is played straight, no matter how ludicrous. The way M3gan slyly handles its melodrama shows a mature awareness. It’s a comedy, but you decide where to laugh. For myself, that moment when the robotic doll M3gan (voice by Jenna Davis) began singing “Titanium” to try and calm Cady was a howler.

Allison Williams is a treasure. The way she can pronounce the three in M3gan, in the beginning, is a gobsmacking talent alone. Williams deftly handles the dialogue and character arc of a woman so intelligent it never occurs to her to install parental controls on something that will be spending all its time around children. Her performance is a masterclass of being in on the joke while never hamming it up.

Young McGraw gives an equally impressive performance. Cady is emotionally brittle, understandable, and closed off. However, the way she slowly is brought out of her shell by M3gan is so touching that it’s sad when she realizes that her best friend might be a serial killing robot hellbent on protecting her at all costs. 

My one gripe is how M3gan, rated PG-3, also abides by a Hays Code morality. Whether it’s Ronny Chieng’s David, Gemma’s loudmouth, overbearing boss, or his weasely put-upon assistant Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten), all of M3gan’s victims are either outright wrong or morally dubious characters. Of course, this makes it easier to root for M3gan’s kills, but it also flattens what could have been a potentially devious little flick.

Johnstone and Cooper perfectly balance the gory, absurd aspects of M3gan with the emotional beats. It’s touching but never overly sentimental or treacly. Indeed, it’s the way the movie often uses polar opposite moments to bounce off each other that creates so much of the infectious fun of M3gan. For example, take the scene in which M3gan and Gemma have a confrontation about what has Cady’s best interest at heart. It’s a wild scene because Williams, Johnstone, and Johnstone and Cooper nail the moment’s emotion while sprinkling in a low-down and dirty fight scene between them all. Yet, at the same time, they try to act normal so as not to arouse Cady’s suspicions.

Of course, all of this hinges on M3gan herself, a lifesized robot meant to be a stand-in for the one thing Gemma feels incapable of being, a parent. Voiced by Davis and played by Amie Donald, M3gan is a wonderfully creepy uncanny valley effect. Johnstone and Donald play up the absurdity of it all with Donald’s physicality. M3gan moves with a confident strut, mixed with Jenna Davis’s vocal performance, which is as complex as anything Williams does. Her “Seriously, Cady, flush” delivery had me cackling. M3gan is a stunning horror creation with an equally impressive acronym standing for Model 3 Generative Android.

Cady (McGraw), M3gan (Donald & Davis), and Gemma (Allison Williams)

Despite all this, Cooper’s script explores some authentic ideas. The main one is the ease parents give their children over to technology. Cooper and Johnstone get a lot of mileage from Gemma, slowly realizing that pawning a child onto a robot might not have been the wisest decision. Still, they also explore how modern parents jump at the chance to have electronic babysitters instead of doing the hard work of parenting themselves. The hard work of parenting often being monotonous and repetitive to the point that we often use tech or the internet more as a tool than a distraction.

Johnstone utilizes Peter McCaffrey and Simon Raby’s camera but never takes full advantage of it. Nevertheless, the trio has fun; for example, the way M3gan is introduced to Cady is a straight-up hero/badass introduction in any other movie. M3gan sauntering in, wearing sunglasses, and revealing herself to Cady and us exemplifies how M3gan giddily purports itself. They even have fun tickling the edges of its PG-13 confines. There’s nothing overtly gory, though a scene involving a boy’s ear that had me squirming and covering my eyes. It’s a movie that’s so polished you don’t even realize you’ve just watched a movie where a kid and a dog bite the big one.

Still, as polished and immaculately executed as M3gan was, I wished for more visual panache. I get the look was likely to emulate Gemma’s engineering mindset, cold and sterile, mixed with moments of warmth once Cady enters her life. But McCaffrey and Raby’s camera, while slick and delightful, never seem to embrace M3gan as much as Cooper’s script. Yes, it’s PG-13, but they seem to play it entirely too safe.

Thankfully, this is a minor quibble, as movies like M3gan are precious gems to be squirreled away. January is a long cold month, and not every week will present us with sassy killers and emotionally complex women as they try to battle monsters of their creations. Nevertheless, we must treasure these films while we can.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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