‘M3GAN’ Review: Brilliantly Crafted Comedy-Horror Delivers a Jolting January Surprise

Don’t judge this smart, provocative chiller by its first-weekend-of-the-year release

"M3GAN" (Universal Pictures)

It’s extremely impolite to release a film like “M3GAN” in the first weekend of the calendar year. Early January is a time that’s usually reserved for unremarkable or awful genre films like “Underworld: Blood Wars” or the re-quel of “The Grudge.” But “M3GAN” is actually a good movie, and it shouldn’t be tainted by this association with the typical winter doldrums.

Actually, “M3GAN” is more than just a good movie: It’s a great one. Gerard Johnstone (“Housebound”) and screenwriter Akela Cooper (“Malignant”) have crafted a frighteningly fun and excitingly creepy horror-comedy that holds up to scrutiny. It’s thematically rich and emotionally resonant. Maybe 2023 will be a pretty good year after all; “M3GAN” gives us hope.

Allison Williams stars as Gemma, a single, career-focused toy designer whose life gets thrown into upheaval when her sister and brother-in-law suddenly die. Gemma is given custody of her niece, Cady (Violet McGraw, “Black Widow”), but dang it, Gemma is pretty busy, and she spends more time working on her latest project — a Model 3 Generative Android, aka M3GAN — than bonding with or nurturing this young girl who desperately needs a real connection.

Realizing that she can kill two birds with one stone, Gemma reconfigures M3GAN to be not just a high-tech friend, but also a parental surrogate that constantly evolves to meet the needs of a child. M3GAN (Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davis) becomes Cady’s playmate, her babysitter, her confidant and pretty soon — because Gemma can’t be bothered to do any heavy lifting herself — her primary caregiver. And M3GAN takes that responsibility very, very seriously. Deadly seriously.

So yeah, that neighbor with the angry dog that threatens Cady’s physical safety? Something’s going to have to be done about that. The bully who injures Cady in the woods? There’s no point in contributing to his college fund. Johnstone’s film takes great delight in showing the audience exactly who deserves to die and then cathartically killing them, a dastardly tone that scratches the audience’s moral itch for justice while indulging in our old-fashioned, mean-spirited bloodlust.

And yet the film’s harshest judgments are reserved for Gemma, who falls prey to the insidious temptation to distract a child instead of raising her. Violet McGraw plays Cady with frank, raw emotion, conveying the kind of visceral responses you might expect from a child too young to process grief, who nevertheless has to mourn her parents. Her connection with M3GAN is a natural response to losing, suddenly, the only people who cared about her and to being thrust into a living situation with an adult who treats her like a problem to be solved.

Johnstone’s film prepares us to share M3GAN’s harsh judgments by freely giving us the high ground over its protagonist. We laugh when M3GAN ominously glares at someone who threatens Cady’s security because it’s the exact same glare we gave Gemma when, instead of spending quality time with Cady, she leaves her alone with an iPad all day. When Cady asks for a bedtime story, the camera lingers on the two of them while Gemma silently downloads a book, more attentive to the smartphone screen with nothing on it than to the niece she’s supposed to be caring for, who’s right in front of her.

The worst critique one can reasonably lob at “M3GAN” is that Gemma — who is supposed to be self-absorbed, not inhuman — never seems to mourn for her own sister. She’s too busy trying to make deadlines, and the movie is far too focused on Cady’s emotions to delve too far into Gemma’s own psychology, leaving the character feeling just a little incomplete.

But that doesn’t get in the way of the story, which plays out with all the bizarre fascination one might expect from Cooper, whose previous script for James Wan’s “Malignant” was also a devilish joy. Working from a story co-written by Wan, Cooper cleverly constructs a screenplay that justifies the mayhem, makes us care about the characters we need to care about, heightens the awful qualities about the characters who are going to die, and deftly sets up some sequels without making it seem like a shoehorned corporate mandate. (One suspects that they might regret putting the number “3” in the title from the get-go, since when that third film rolls around, what then?)

And then of course there’s M3GAN herself. Davis is doing impressive and subtle work, hinting at the character’s emergence as a true artificial intelligence in ways the audience keys into but that the characters can be forgiven for missing. Donald imbues the character with a physicality that’s always odd, and otherwise alternates between charming and shocking. The character is a distinct and thrilling creation.

“M3GAN” is incredibly funny, sometimes sneakily so. There’s a line about “kicking Hasbro in the dick” which has to be an inside joke coming from Blumhouse, the studio that gave us ill-fated/underrated “Jem and the Holograms.” But it’s all so intelligently crafted and thoughtful that “M3GAN” can’t be written off as a lark. Johnstone’s film captures the same alchemical blend of heart, humor and havoc you find only rarely, in crossover classics like “Gremlins,” and it yields more entertainment than most would-be blockbusters.

“M3GAN” opens in U.S. theaters Jan. 6 via Universal Pictures.