M3GAN’s techno-terror also taps into primal fears

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M3GAN, the titular robot star of a new horror flick that’s slaying at the box office, managed to go viral even before her film was released. From her Uncanny Valley dance scene to her paper-cutter machete rampage to her deadpan Mean Girl snark, the new pint-sized princess of killer dolls is having a moment.

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Opinion

M3GAN, the titular robot star of a new horror flick that’s slaying at the box office, managed to go viral even before her film was released. From her Uncanny Valley dance scene to her paper-cutter machete rampage to her deadpan Mean Girl snark, the new pint-sized princess of killer dolls is having a moment.

Fans are picking up on the movie’s vibe, which is kind of funny, kind of creepy and extremely camp. M3GAN is not a great movie, but it has a sly, self-aware way of enjoying its own silliness.

Both zany and zeitgeisty, M3GAN’s cautionary tale dwells — as most of us do these days — in that anxious, ambivalent terrain between fascinated technophilia and petrified technophobia. This is the kind of Black Mirror-style sci-fi that has you looking sideways at your devices, wondering what they might be up to, at the same time you’re using those devices to share your kicky M3GAN-inspired memes.

wfpyoutube: https://youtu.be/BRb4U99OU80:wfpyoutube

The film, from a story by horror impresario James Wan, also hits on a few levels, being totally 2023 in its exploration of techno-terror, while also tapping into older, more primal fears, in this case the endlessly renewing resource of parental guilt and anxiety.

Allison Williams (Girls) is Gemma, a robotics engineer at Funki, a predictably evil toy company. She’s supposed to be updating the corporation’s Purrpetual Pet, a quipping, farting interactive fuzzball, but she’s secretly working on M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android), a lifelike AI-equipped robot that uses high-level machine learning to pair-bond with one child.

Gemma, a hyper-focused, single-minded workaholic, is too absorbed in the undeniable coolness of her invention to stop to think about the ethical (or even practical!) problems that might come with a toy that will be as adept at tucking in small children as it is at, say — I’m just spitballing here — murdering tech bros and burying bodies.

Gemma’s research is interrupted, however, when she becomes guardian to her niece Cady (Violet McGraw), who is orphaned after a terrible car wreck. The accident takes place — significantly — as Cady’s stressed-out mom and dad are momentarily distracted by an argument over limiting her screentime.

As an unprepared new parent, Gemma has good intentions. But she makes the very dubious decision to rope Cady into her work, using the grief-stricken nine-year-old to beta-test M3GAN.

M3GAN quickly becomes Cady’s playmate, protector and then, disturbingly, a kind of surrogate parent. Gemma enthusiastically talks up the ways M3GAN serves Cady’s needs, but what’s left unstated is the way M3GAN also fulfils Gemma’s desires, performing the repetitive, practical tasks of parenting and thereby freeing up Gemma to work.

More dangerously, Gemma offloads a lot of the emotional labour of parenting onto the android. After a fumbling attempt to talk through Cady’s loss of her mother and father, Gemma decides to leave the grief therapy to the seemingly more adept M3GAN.

While this might sound grim, the movie plays mostly as bizarre comedy, thanks to M3GAN herself (played physically by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, with some deft help from animatronics and CGI). As the blank-faced embodiment of artificial intelligence, M3GAN can be unsettlingly smart in certain ways, but her approach to many basic human interactions is hilariously uneven and off-key. This discrepancy is underlined by her unsettling physical presence, not just her odd way of moving but her wacky wardrobe, which makes her look a little like a 1970s air hostess.

Both zany and zeitgeisty, M3GAN’s cautionary tale dwells in that anxious, ambivalent terrain between fascinated technophilia and petrified technophobia. (Universal Pictures)

Looking back at the horror genre, M3GAN follows in the long historical line of Talky Tina, Chucky, Annabelle, Brahms — basically all those dolls possessed by demons, spirits, serial killers or poltergeisty impulses.

But she also proves you don’t even need the supernatural when you have the innate spookiness of 21st-century technology. M3GAN channels our current apprehension about the rapidly accelerating development of AI, especially AI with insufficient programming parameters, non-existent safety protocols and high-functioning, throat-crushing hands.

M3GAN’s tech-assisted murderousness is flamboyant and fun but, ultimately, not that scary. The movie hides the real terrors of technology in something much more true-to-life — in the interactions between Gemma and Cady and in our quiet, intimate, everyday fears about parenting in a digitized age.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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