Before the Chucky franchise became downright camptastic, the original Child’s Play movie was sinister, gruesome, and frighteningly realistic. Kids of my generation were shown it far too young and it scarred some of us for life, instilling a paralyzing fear of dolls that come to life.
But, come all ye ’80s-born millennials and bring thyselves to the multiplex this weekend, because the 2023 version of Chucky, the future cult classic that is M3GAN, is well worth facing your fears to go see in a theater with an excitable crowd of genre fans. Don’t you think it’s high time to conquer those childhood demons?
That first Chucky movie followed a serial killer on death row who used voodoo to transfer his soul into the latest hot toy — an ironically-named Good Guy doll — that subsequently went on a violent killing spree. It is grim ’80s horror at its best — or worst, depending on your perspective. Nearly 40 years later, society has changed its perception of danger and what may pose a threat to children. Films like Ex Machina and I, Robot warn of the dangers of technology — particularly the artificial intelligence kind — in ways that were first seeded by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey.
M3GAN is, in some bizarre, amusing way, the perfect distillation of all of these concepts into a single, mostly pointless, but always amusing film that never takes itself too seriously. In this version, roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) creates an advanced android named M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis) that is programmed to be an artificially intelligent companion to an emotionally traumatized child — her own niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), who has been left in her aunt’s custody after being orphaned in a terrible car accident at the outset of the film.
Note to the wary: this is never a good idea, folks. Do not try to create an eerie-looking sentient toy that can think on its own, for it will not end well. Sure, Cady quickly takes to the frighteningly lifelike doll, appreciating her new companion, though it soon becomes clear that M3GAN is more than a little possessive of the child and she has no problem getting aggressive with anyone she perceives in her flawed, nonhuman emotions to be a threat to her well-being. That includes Gemma, who isn’t exactly cut out to be a mother.
What follows is both utterly predictable as well as endlessly entertaining. Director Gerard Johnstone has delivered a hit with the first major studio release of the calendar year simply by not trying to do anything too fancy behind the camera. All he has to do is tell Akela Cooper‘s devious little story in a straightforward fashion and let the cute yet demonic doll (er, Model 3 Generative Android, really, hence the name) jump, twirl, dance, swing, and stab as she sees fit.
Though Cooper’s script offers bits of social commentary here and there about absent parents, the encroachment of technology, and the dangers of artificiality, it never takes itself too seriously, throwing in just the right mix of foolish banter before crossing that line.
Though M3GAN certainly has some violent moments, they are few and far between, which may be frustrating for seasoned fans of producers James Wan and Jason Blum, but that’s part of their strategy here to keep the audience engaged, floating in the blasé stupor that is this movie. The PG-13 rating is the only clue you need to understand that this is the modern version of Child’s Play, mostly because today’s audiences have no desire for dark spirits and séance murders.
Violet McGraw in M3GAN/Universal PicturesToday’s moviegoers want to be entertained with fluffy camp, and that is what this movie delivers in spades. The contours of predictability are the same, of course, as annoying characters such as Gemma’s next-door neighbor (Lori Dungey) and her irritating boss (Ronny Chieng) get their rightful and delightful comeuppance, while Cady and M3GAN’s ultimate fates can be seen from miles away. Meanwhile, the tone and nature of the proceedings are also modern, as the jump scares are not meant to frighten you, nor are the kills meant to disgust you. Instead, the point is to make this as easy and digestible as possible for 2023 audiences, who aren’t going to movies like M3GAN to be challenged.
Below the line, M3GAN is a success in at least one respect — the impressive makeup visual effects by Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse that bring its pint-sized villain to life with help from the digital effects by Weta FX, which frequently works with Wan. M3GAN has a perfectly soft but equally dreary look, the tender skin of a movie star of yore, and a synthetic look, for sure, though she moves in a way that is perfectly aligned with reality — a testament to the character’s design and creation.
With M3GAN, Wan, Blum, and Universal will almost certainly have another horror hit on their hands — albeit of the lighter variety — not because this film represents sophisticated cinema or breaks any new cinematic ground, but because its comedic tone is exactly in line with what modern audiences want from horror, and movies more broadly — light entertainment that purports to be scary, challenging, or dramatic, but in reality, is as artificial as the intelligence of this movie’s central character.
In that sense, you can safely bet there’s already a sequel in the works given the commercial appeal of this bonkers horror movie.
M3GAN is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Universal Pictures.