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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

The deadly dolly gets an AI upgrade in wickedly funny ‘M3GAN’

Cady (Violet McGraw, right) gets a prototype doll that becomes fiercely protective of her in “M3GAN.” (Universal Pictures)

If I’m putting together a Mount Creepmore of the most terrifying Horror Movie Dolls of all time, here’s the roster:

  • Fats in “Magic” (1978)
  • The clown doll in “Poltergeist” (1982)
  • Chucky from “Child’s Play” (1988)
  • Annabelle from “The Conjuring” (2013)

The title character from the wickedly funny, cheerfully dark and fantastically preposterous “M3GAN” isn’t quite in that category, but she’s the Rookie of the Year in the first terrific movie ride of 2023 — a striking and original and eerie creation who can snap your neck but is also capable of tenderly singing “Titanium” as a lullaby, I kid you not.


This is the kind of movie you really want to see with an audience, as the laughs-to-scares ratio is about 3:1. Director Gerard Johnstone, screenwriter Akela Cooper (adapting a story she dreamed up with James Wan) and the SFX team have created an unforgettable villain in this crisply edited, tightly spun, well-acted, thoroughly entertaining and at times deliberately campy slice of social satire.

Allison Williams does a wonderful job of playing it straight amidst all the chaos as Gemma, a brilliant and obsessive roboticist who works for the Seattle-based Funki Toy company, designing high-tech and wildly popular toys such as a computer-programmed gizmo straight out of “Gremlins” who eats and farts and poops little pellets and makes the kind of snarky comments that keep the adolescents laughing.

Ah, but Gemma’s latest project is far more ambitious: Gemma’s latest project is a lifelike doll called M3GAN (for Model 3 Generative Android), with advanced artificial intelligence and emergent capabilities, which means it learns from interactions with human beings, in particular the one person with whom the doll is paired. After Gemma’s demonstration of the M3GAN prototype for her tightly wound boss David (a hilarious Ronny Chieng) hits a serious snag, David tells Gemma and her team to lock M3GAN in a room somewhere and go back to making relatively cheap and popular tech toys, but of course Gemma doesn’t do that. Like any good modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, Gemma believes in her creation and isn’t about to let her go.

Around this time, tragedy strikes when Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law are killed in a head-on collision on their way to a ski trip with their 8-year-old daughter Cady (Violet McGraw), who survived the crash with just a few scrapes and is then sent to live with Emma, who hasn’t the faintest idea of how to be a guardian or even provide a modicum of comfort to Cady. If only Gemma could provide Cady with an instant best friend, someone who would listen to her and play with her and understand her and protect her — hey, wait a minute! Time to power up M3GAN! What could possibly go wrong?

M3GAN is played by Amie Donald (under a layer of amazing digital effects) and voiced by Jenna Davis, and the onscreen result is an entity that looks like a miniature version of one of those unfortunate women who undergo dozens of plastic surgeries to look like living dolls, with a persona that’s a cross between Chucky, HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the T-800 from “The Terminator” and Regina George from “Mean Girls.” She’s something, all right.

Cady quickly bonds with M3GAN and begins to shut out Gemma, while M3GAN shows signs of becoming ever more independent and fiercely protective of Cady, which spells bad news for anyone who is perceived to be a threat to Cady. (In one such encounter with a school bully who suddenly realizes this doll thing has the ability to crush his head like a grape, M3GAN deadpans, “This is the part where you run.”)

Allison Williams plays Cady’s aunt, who lets her play with the lifelike doll she invented. (Universal Pictures)

After a second demonstration at Funki Toy in which M3GAN interacts with Cady, the company puts M3GAN on the fast track to production. By this point, it’s clear there are serious issues with M3GAN, but like all those genius scientists and generational thinkers who ignore the warnings in the “Jurassic Park,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Godzilla” movies, Gemma keeps on making one boneheaded decision after another, so that the movie can keep on going.

The screenplay works in some cautionary exposition about parents allowing technology to become full-time babysitters to their children, with Gemma’s colleague Tess (Jen Van Epps) voicing those concerns, reminding Gemma that M3GAN should be assisting her in raising Cady, not taking over the reins completely. Mostly, though, “M3GAN” follows the playbook of the AI creation that is designed as a friend and helpful tool for humans but is even smarter and more intuitive and independent than those stupid humans could have imagined, and isn’t about to be told what to do.

For all its cleverness and pop-culture savvy and meta references, “M3GAN” also indulges in tropes we’ve seen in a hundred slasher movies, but the dark laughs keep coming, and of course we get an ending that leaves the door open for a potential franchise. She’s the living doll of your nightmares, and you can’t just power her down, kiddo.

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