M3GAN is the best horror movie of the year! I know it’s only the eighth day of the year so far as of this writing (I hope you’re all enjoying your king cake and that you all waited until this weekend to do so, since not waiting until after Twelfth Night is the reason we’re all cursed), and I’m sure a hundred other hacks have already made the same joke, but who am I to mess with the formula? After all, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?
Four years ago, Child’s Play creator Don Mancini was on the Post Mortem podcast and confirmed what many had assumed for years: that the film that introduced us to the pre-eminent killer doll, Chucky, was a critique of consumerism. “Because of my exposure to the world of advertising and marketing through my dad,” he said, referencing his father’s pharmaceutical work, “I was very aware from an early age of the cynicism inherent in that world, particularly selling products to children. Madison Avenue refers to children as ‘consumer trainees’ and I discovered that as a child. I thought, I wanted to write a dark satire about how advertising affects children.” Many of those anti-consumerism elements were excised from the final product following editing and collaboration with John Lafia, but they’re not removed completely: the original Good Guys doll that is inhabited by the dark soul of a serial killer is still very clearly inspired by both Cabbage Patch and My Buddy dolls of the 1980s, up to and including the insidious nature of advertising directly to children through animated programming as seen in the Good Guys cartoon that Andy watches in the first film. By Child’s Play 3, toy company exec Sullivan (previously introduced in the second film) is expressing, verbatim, the things that Mancini quotes real life movers and shakers at the cathedrals of capital, saying “And what are children after all, but consumer trainees?”
Smartly, M3GAN initially seems to be coming at the “killer toy” plot from a similar angle, and although the corporate greed of toy companies remains relevant throughout (Ronny Chieng’s upper management character David Lin at one point expressed excitement at the prospect of the M3GAN toy finally letting their company, Funki, “kick Hasbro in the dick”), the story quickly becomes less about consumerism than it is about letting technology be your kids’ babysitter, or parent. The film opens with an advertisement for the “Purrpetual Petz,” in which a child mourns the loss of her dog but whose spirits lift immensely upon receipt of her new best friend, a giant fuzzy triangle that’s somewhere on the scale between a squishmallow and a Furby, with funny/scary human teeth for some reason, and which is capable of “defecating” little bits of scat if overfed (via the interactive app). We zoom out on said app to find Cady (Violet McGraw) feeding her Purrpetual Pet on a tablet in the backseat of her parents’ SUV, en route to a ski vacation that never comes, as the vehicle is violently smashed by a snow truck. Elsewhere, her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) is hard at work at Funki, the makers of Purrpetual Petz, along with her assistants Tess (Jen Van Epps) and Cole (Brian Jordan Alvarez). Her boss David (Chieng) is riding her hard to churn out a prototype for a less expensive version of the Petz line since their competitor has launched a knock-off version at $50, half the price of at Purr Pet; his sycophantic assistant Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten) constantly at his side. When David catches Gemma working on her pet (no pun intended) project, a Model 3 Generation Android nicknamed “M3GAN” instead of her assigned work, he puts her on notice, moments before she gets the call from the hospital where Cady is being treated, the lone survivor of the car crash. Gemma finds herself having trouble interacting with Cady, as her gorgeous mid-century modern house is a mixture of that era of furniture style with the sort of home personal assistant gadgetry that many people who are less paranoid than I am have in their houses. Gemma’s toy robot collection isn’t for playing, it’s for observing, and when Cady asks her to read her a bedtime story, Gemma has no books that might interest the nine-year-old and has to go searching for one on an app, which then has to update.
This is the meat of the film’s larger techno-hesitant themes; it’s not anti-technology per se, but it is invested in highlighting the ways that we let software and the expectation of instant gratification take on a huge role in our lives, to the point of supplanting our actual relationships. We’ve all seen it. Less than 48 hours before my viewing of the film, I went out Friday evening to a restaurant happy hour with the same friend who went with me to see M3GAN, and there was a mother-and-son duo seated near us who caught my friend’s attention, as the woman first tried to engage her young son in conversation before finally giving up and letting him have his device, and she herself got involved with something on her phone. My dinner companion noted that the kid was playing some video on his small tablet but wasn’t even watching it, as it sat in his lap while he ate with his headphones in. So often, when we see this thing play out in movies, it’s often a condemnation of the young, how they don’t have any attention span because of TikTok or how Gen Z is doing blah blah blah now that enough of them have come of age to become the new political scapegoats after we Millennials destroyed the diamond industry and somehow caused the downfall of the West because of avocado toast. M3GAN is acutely aware that this is a problem across all generations, and that the young aren’t to blame for the fact that algorithms are created to entrap them before they’re old enough to have the understanding of how they’re being psychologically manipulated, whether it’s Cady here or Andy in Child’s Play. Before their deaths, Cady’s parents discuss screen time, and how many hours a day Cady is allowed to interact with her device; later, it’s Gemma who is so caught up in staring at her phone that she doesn’t notice that Cady is eating her breakfast in silence and waiting for her aunt to talk to her, and when she encourages Cady to play with her tablet while the older woman puts time in on her work project, Cady asks how long she is allowed to do so before she has to turn it off, and Gemma is caught off guard by the notion that limiting screen time is something that parents even have to do.
For as long as I can remember, there’s been much ado about the effects of using TV as a babysitter. Won’t someone please think of the children? What long term psychological damage will little Johnny endure if he watches reruns of Growing Pains every day after school while one or more parents decompresses from the stresses of work? Is there maybe too much Tinkerbell content available on demand, and is it the worst thing in the world to let little Jenny absorb it for a few hours while dinner is prepared, now that she’s too squirmy to sit in the kitchen and watch how the sausage gets made? But none of us were really prepared for the way that video apps (especially ones with short-form content that consistently and continuously releases dopamine in the lizard parts of the brain) and constant connectivity were going to rock our world. I’m not just saying that because I’m Abe Simpson in that evergreen “Old Man Yells At Cloud” meme; I’m of the generation that were children when 9/11 happened and watched how every adult in the world lost their mind in a jingoistic fervor that, coupled with unfiltered access to constant one-sided news rhetoric, means we all have to monitor our parents’ social media as well just to make sure they don’t all start agreeing with Andrew Tate and Kanye West. Unfortunately, when this sort of presents itself in media, it’s often a very shallow, surface-level critique because, as Audre Lorde writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and the same corporations that are causing and have caused reckless and irreparable damage to our society (and, if we’re being completely honest, to the fabric of democracy) are necessary tools of the same megacorporations that produce the content that we consume, so Disney can never really take the piss out of Twitter because that’s where all their megafans live and their engagement is driven.
M3GAN sidesteps this by not being “about” social media, or even “about” the so-called evils of technology. It’s about what happens when the responsibility of guardianship is overlooked, and it does so without shifting blame to the people who are the victims: the kids. There’s a lovely little visual storytelling beat in the aforementioned scene in which Gemma asks Cady over breakfast to entertain herself for a while; she promises that she won’t be more than a few hours, but we cut immediately to an establishing shot of the house, where night has fallen, signalling that Gemma has been caught up in her work all day. It’s not Gemma who suddenly realizes that she never made lunch or dinner that initiates the next scene, it’s Cady peeking into Gemma’s office and the latter making the connection that she’s been in her workshop all day with no regard for Cady’s well-being or engagement. That Cady has taken the time that she was alone and used it not to sit around and waste the day watching videos or playing one of the millions of Candy Crush derivatives that are out there these days but instead to draw is telling: children need more than just to be set up with a device all day, and it’s foreshadowing that M3GAN, for as much as she seems to be the perfect toy and friend, is never going to be able to replace real social interaction for Cady, even if the algorithms that drive her machine learning (like the algorithms that drive the online content that all of us consume) are working hard to replace all other areas of her life. Late in the film, the psychologist assigned to ensure that Gemma is capable of taking care of Cady (Amy Usherwood) has a discussion with the former, warning her that the kinds of connections that, according to attachment theory, children need. She warns Gemma that allowing Cady to invest so much time in M3GAN could consequently lead Cady to develop emotional bonds that will end tragically, one way or another.
All of this probably makes it seem like the film is super serious, but it’s not; it’s actually very funny. It wasn’t until after the viewing that I realized the director, Gerard Johnstone, was also the man behind Housebound, a film we loved so much that we made it into content for Swampflix twice: first with a very positive 2015 review and again five years later as the topic on one of our earliest episodes of the Lagniappe podcast. That actually explains the comedic sensibility; it’s not omnipresent, but it’s almost funnier that the jokes are paced with some distance between them, allowing them to break the tension when they reappear, and the emotional whiplash of it all is part of the fun. There are two perfectly attuned parodies of children’s commercials that appear in close proximity to each other, and although they’re probably more like the advertisements of the late-nineties to early-aughts than those of the present, that makes them familiar and charming to most of the intended audience. The first is the aforementioned Purrpetual Petz ad, and the second is an advertisement for the competing knock-off, which forsakes the pooping feature for a light-up butt that tells you the creature’s mood. Both have the energy of that Kooshlings commercial meets the one for Baby Uh-Oh with the one for Baby Rollerblade mixed in for good measure. Directly between them rests the scene depicting the harrowing death of Cady’s parents, which is fraught with tension throughout. They’re spread a bit further out than they were in Housebound, but they’re just as effective.
If I have one complaint, it’s that M3GAN is a little restrained with its violence in certain places. The final confrontation is as good as it gets at this level, with some real peril for a child, which always ramps up the tension. The kills get gorier as the film goes on, but it feels like it could have cut loose sooner and with more oomph, but that’s not the end of the world. It’s a worthy entry in the killer doll canon even if it decides to be demure and understated in certain places.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond