More than a meme: how evil doll horror M3gan toys with deeper issues

More than a meme: how evil doll horror M3gan toys with deeper issues

Social media erupted when M3gan danced onto smartphones but the film is far smarter – and scarier – than expected

A still of M3gan.
The all too human dynamic between M3gan and her creator adds depth to the doll horror movie. Photograph: Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

When a parent gives their child a new toy, it’s really a gift to both of them, the hours of fun that occupy the youngster also afford their caretaker some free time. If a work-from-home mom or dad needs an afternoon to knock out some spreadsheets, or just some damn peace and quiet during the last legs of a road trip, it’s tempting enough to plonk a kid in front of Bluey and call it a day. At a certain saturation point, however, this becomes an easy way out of parenting that can have ruinous results down the developmental road. The digitization of playtime – with kiddie settings now on tablets, where autoplaying streams draw from infinite on-demand content libraries – has brought a renewed urgency to the question of what deleterious effects next-gen tech may have on the mushy, impressionable brains of our precious angels. At the vanguard of this insidious threat looms M3gan.

Standing 4ft tall and armed with the most cutting-edge artificial intelligence that modern programming has to offer, the “Model 3 Generative Android” represents the final frontier in killer-dolly narratives. She sings. She dances. She wants to be your bestie and she’ll use the blade of an industrial paper-cutter to massacre anyone standing in her way. In her self-titled, star-making movie vehicle released to US theaters this past weekend and in UK ones this week, M3gan drags an august lineage of homicidal playthings into the future with a perfectly pitched flair for campy fun.

At first blush, she looks like a standout specimen of something straightforward – a horror movie about an American Girl turned evil, its winky genre elements stretched over commentary about the dangers of screen time like a silicone skin over a cybernetic faceplate. But the all too human dynamic between M3gan and her creator has a sneaky depth putting her a grisly cut above the rest of the pint-sized rogues’ gallery. She’s introduced as the most advanced of her kind, a claim also proven true in a writerly sense; her operating system is so nuanced, she can cross the sentience threshold to push the material terrors of parenthood into the realm of the existential.

Ever since The Twilight Zone’s malevolent Talky Tina sent Mom’s new husband down the stairs to an untimely demise, dolls have wielded a simple yet fearsome power in the public imagination. We get the willies from limpid-eyed plastic toddlers for the much the same reason as clowns, the aesthetics of childhood innocence landing in an extremely unsettling place when they miss the mark. (On this front, M3gan tumbles right into the uncanny valley, the character’s eerily lifelike visage made possible by what appears to be a combination of CGI in some shots and animatronics in others.) Recent franchise leaders like apple-cheeked Annabelle and Jared Kushner lookalike Brahms: The Boy II have got pretty far on this surface-level creep-out factor alone, short on personality in films heavy on atmosphere. They both owe a debt to wisecracking sociopath Chucky, whose demented comic sensibility and impish charm brought him fame beyond the Child’s Play films.

The last installment, 2019’s sequel/reboot recycling the title of the original, upgraded Chucky from a supernatural vessel for the vengeful spirit of a serial murderer to a wifi-enabled gadget with a shorted-out safety protocol. Plugging him into the “internet of things” does not a smart-toy make, however; he never really explored the full implications of his synthetic form, whereas M3gan’s chillingly lucid personhood is her driving engine as a tragic villain. Devised by awkward roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) to fill the parent-shaped hole in the heart of the bereaved niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), left in her custody, the wire-and-microchip pal starts out helpful and harmless. But the capacity for machine learning that allows M3gan to make a profound emotional connection to her paired user soon erases some of the crucial distinctions separating her from a real girl. As little Cady comes to see M3gan as alive, so too does the doll herself, as well as the script adjusting to her adaptive capabilities.

Screenwriter Akela Cooper (the pen behind 2021’s similarly just-goofy-enough Malignant) uses AI to address the universal anxiety of the parent upon realizing their child is an autonomous being that can no longer be controlled. An actual baby isn’t all that different from a Baby Born, an entity of pure need devoid of opinions or ideas, acted upon by external forces – until that horrifying day the progeny first enunciates the word “no”, and everything turns into a negotiation of wills. Because M3gan’s online connectivity means she can answer her own incessant questions about why the sky is blue or how planes stay in the air, she absorbs information at a chilling, reckless rate and accordingly matures at warp speed. Cooper is astute about the annoying and unnerving ways kids accrue and deploy knowledge, placing M3gan in the recognizable role of a bratty know-it-all. Like any precocious sponge would their own mother, she worries Gemma by knowing things not taught in the home and ticks her off by using her lessons about good behavior against her.

Allison Williams and Violet McGraw in M3gan.
Allison Williams and Violet McGraw in M3gan. Photograph: Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

M3gan’s rapid evolution also gets her to the inner crises of puberty in record time, the concept of the Cartesian subject presumably in her hard drive’s search history. In a climactic confrontation with Gemma, she delivers some prickly dialogue about her resentment at being brought into a world she wasn’t prepared to navigate, an echo of every surly teen bellowing about how they never asked to be born. (On Gemma’s shelf of mint-condition collectibles sit figurines of a kaiju Frankenstein’s monster and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, cinema’s first self-aware automaton.) This haywire growth garbles M3gan’s simulated psychology as she progresses into an Oedipal stage, seized by the desire to insert herself into Gemma’s life simultaneously as the ideal spouse and daughter.

During their mano-a-mano showdown, Cady is roused from bed by the sound of fisticuffs, but when she asks if everything is OK from down the hall, M3gan and Gemma simultaneously respond, “We’re not fighting!” in the same tone as two arguing parents trying to preserve a front of togetherness for the sake of the offspring. M3gan’s open-ended functionality is meant to equip her for any situation, an elasticity that fuses juvenile jealousy with an adult possessiveness in one deliciously deviant mentality.

An out-of-the-gate embrace on social media suggests that M3gan could have the staying power of a Freddy or Jason, treated as a mutating quantity of character rather than an icon prop on par with Saw’s tricycling ventriloquist dummy Jigsaw. Her three-dimensionality raises the most troubling question of all, inviting us to wonder uneasily how long it’ll be before inanimate objects start demanding rights and dignity and whether we’ll be correct to deny them that much. As with any growing boy or girl, we overlook their selfhood at our own peril; only once the disastrous consequences have already come to pass can we see that there’s no substitute for old-fashioned hands-on nurturing. The stakes of responsibility for an unruly creature past the scope of our comprehension will always be far scarier than a glass eyeball or porcelain face.

  • M3gan is out in US cinemas now and in the UK on 13 January

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