Review: 'M3GAN' is Precisely How January Horror Flicks Should Be
by Manuel São Bento
January 15, 2023
New year, new January horror movies. According to popular sayings, the infamous month is often called the "recycling bin" of Hollywood studios, where the films they most regret creating are released in the hopes no one talks about them too much. A more accurate statement would be that the first month of each year rarely delivers any movie of such a level of excellence that, by the end of the same year, it is still being mentioned by viewers and cinephiles worldwide. The horror genre is undoubtedly the one genre that usually suffers the most, but occasionally some good surprises come around the corner. Fortunately, M3GAN is one of them.
The premise for M3GAN is quite simple and doesn't escape the dozens of formulas used in the "killer doll / conscious AI" subgenres. It doesn't possess a narrative that leaves the audience in awe or scratching their heads. It doesn't contain overwhelming visuals, and its much-debated PG-13 rating limits the theoretically most shocking moments in this horror movie. Themes and character arcs follow predictable paths, and end up at at the same conclusions depicted in many other films. Hence, the big question: why is M3GAN being received so incredibly well by the vast majority of critics and audiences?
For me, there are three main reasons. First, Akela Cooper's screenplay screenplay contains a humorous, intelligent satirical layer, creating an extremely relatable narrative with important messages on education and the impact of technology on cultural and generational change, whether it be in the lives of adults, teens or kids; or with parents and children. Second, despite lacking a "surprise" factor this time, director Gerard Johnstone (also of Housebound) takes all the cliches and generic plot points and executes them with remarkable efficiency, never forcing a horror sequence or a more intimate scene "just because."
Finally, M3GAN offers a theater experience filled with the purest entertainment value. Peter McCaffrey, the film's director of photography, isn't afraid to shoot in daylight or well-lit interiors, avoiding the typical issue in similar movies obsessed with useless jumpscares in the dark using a chaotic, shaky camera. Jeff McEvoy's editing is equally vital in not cutting too early or too late in the most visually intense, bloody scenes - the R-rated version will be a delight (if it's ever released) - but it's composer Anthony Willis' score and the filmmaker's witty choice of certain songs that stand out from the technical side.
Allison Williams returns to the big screen after three years of absence, and it's a welcome comeback. After the notable Get Out from Jordan Peele, and the underappreciated The Perfection, the actress delivers yet another captivating performance, carrying most of the runtime on her shoulders playing the creator of the AI doll. Even though it is sometimes hard to connect with her character, Gemma. However, M3GAN fails to place the protagonist at the same awareness / perception level as the audience, causing some eye rolls due to some characters' deliberate inability to not notice something evident until it's too late.
Regardless, the cast puts in a strong effort, and credit must be given to all the younger performers. Violet McGraw (11 years old) is surprisingly able to add more emotion than expected to the writing. However, it's performers Amie Donald (12) and Jenna Davis (18) who stand out especially due to their physical & vocal representation of the robot character M3GAN, respectively. Robotic looks, movements, gestures, and purposeful imperfections in her voice - all the details matter to generate an atmosphere gradually creepier and, at the right times, wildly fun. The tonal balance is impeccable.
M3GAN doesn't reinvent the respective subgenres of killer robots or Artificial Intelligence that turns against humans, but it kept me entertainingly invested throughout its 102 minute runtime. Writer Akela Cooper's premise is pushed to its limits – and even beyond – being elevated by excellent performances from the cast, a clever satirical narrative, a couple of eyebrow-raising killings, and meaningful messages about parenting and technology's role in a child's upbringing. It doesn't take itself too seriously or tries to be more than what it truly is. Far from being a masterpiece, but if only all January horror flicks were as good as this one…