The latest from Blumhouse Productions, purveyors of superior horror to the gentry, is likely to find itself placed on the same shelf as killer-doll flicks such as Chucky, The Devil Doll and Annabelle, but this cracking film is at least as connected to science fiction’s long suspicion of artificial intelligence. The initially bland, eventually murderous M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative ANdroid) is a close relative of the psychotic robot in Demon Seed and good old HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It (she?) is also, as we shall see, a neat allegory for contemporary dependence.
The picture kicks off with a hilarious advertisement for a high-tech variation on a Furby. Cady (Violet McGraw), the young owner of one such horror, loses her parents in a road traffic accident and is sent to live with her distracted Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) in geeky Oregon. It transpires that Gemma, designer of the not-Furby, is now working on the vastly more sophisticated doll identified in the film’s title. She brings M3GAN home to help Cady through her grief. Everything goes fine and nobody ends up with their face chewed off.
I’m joking of course. Emerging from a shallower region of Uncanny Valley, the prim, blonde doll – nowhere near as unambiguously villainous in appearance as Chucky – allows her bond with Cady to drag her into ruinous acts of revenge. It takes an insanely long time for Gemma to catch on, but that is how popular entertainment works. Akela Cooper, writer of the excellent Malignant, has great fun teasing out tensions between toy and adult human. When the AI discusses the issue of death, her keepers urge her to “not make a big deal out of it”. The toy company’s messianic boss (Ronny Chieng) – eager to “kick Hasbro in the dick” – shines new light on Pacific Northwest pseudo-liberal hypocrisy.
What really gives M3GAN resonance are the connections with our addiction, as both children and adults, to electronic hand-held devices. Cady’s increasing reliance on the talking doll, an obsession that makes her resistant to fleshy relatives, meshes eerily with the modern human’s inability to put down his or her bleeding smartphone. The analogy is not stressed, but it nonetheless digs awkwardly into the psyche.
Alas, the film does slip towards industry-standard punch-ups in the last 15 minutes. But there is enough promise in this cheeky, witty, incisive shocker to let us look forward to inevitable sequels with something like enthusiasm.