It is possible to spend several paragraphs explaining how this movie could have been something dramatically deep and thematically significant. Like “A.I.” from 2001 or “Ex Machina” from 2015, this film deals with the question of human interaction with machines of intelligent design. This movie could have explored issues of attachment, grief, co-dependence, a whole variety of human conditions that might be effected by the development of artificial intelligence. Taking that path however, would have eliminated the primary function of the film, which is to scare us. This is a monster movie, like “Frankenstein”, where our own creations turn on us and the audience can at times identify with the monster.
The trailer will give you the set up, but it comes down to this, an artificial person starts acting in ways that are not socially or morally acceptable. There is little doubt as to what is going to happen, this story has been around for a couple hundred years. The thing that makes it a little different is that the monster in in the form of a little girl doll and the person she has been created to assist is herself a little girl. Even though there was a possibility that the story line could turn to end of the world scenarios, it stays a little more grounded and the threats are immediate and localized.
Does it work? As a scare generator it is effective. We get a couple of jump scares but mostly there is a steady build up of tension and the creep factor which keeps us engaged. Dolls seem to be by definition a little disturbing, acting as substitutes for humans, typically in play situations. In this situation the doll is acting as playmate rather than plaything, and has the additional plot of replacing a human component with one that is generated through artificial intelligence. If that replacement of human contact had been followed, you would have a psychological horror film, but not a thriller. This movie goes the thriller route with mysterious deaths and ominous looks from the mechanical star.
Other than the doll itself, the two main characters are played by Allison Williams as Gemma, the aunt who takes in her orphaned niece, and who also happens to be a cutting edge toy designer, and Violet McGraw as Cady, the nine year old with a deep psychological scar from her parents death. The least realistic part of the film is the way these two manage to be around each other before the introduction of the doll. Aunt Gemma acts as if she has never encountered a child before, was detached from her dead sister, and only overcomes professional setbacks by using shortcuts that no legal department would ever really allow. Cady gets a little more leeway, after all she is a kid suffering a great loss, but her character is more truculent than sympathetic. Only a few times, planned to make the other parts of the plot work, does she let her emotional guard down. They are better written characters once the plot kicks in.
M3GAN, is the doll at the center of the story, and she is played by a combination of a young actress in costume and a variety of puppets,and some CGI. The actress/puppet element makes the movie so much more effective because the creepy doll looks like a child sized version of those adult rubber dolls that are sold as sex toys. The element of the story that is helpful in engaging us is how young Cady bonds with Megan and Megan seems to be providing comfort that the Aunt is incapable of. If you watch the demo scene played out where Megan comforts Cady while an audience of executives look on, you can see some to the places that this film could go. It doesn’t go there however, it becomes a straight up horror picture,like “Child’s Play” but without any supernatural element.
Ever since “2001” let loose an AI that we could not control, there have been a string of horror films that follow the same path. “Skynet” is not that far off my friends. The more we turn our lives over to “Siri”, “Alexa” and Bixby”, the more vulnerable we will be. Maybe we don’t really need to worry about malevolent machines, but we should be worried about the unintended consequences of giving technology increasing control of our daily lives. That’s not what this movie is about, but it could have been. This is a solid January horror film, but it will be forgotten when the next scary movie comes out.