AI Girlbot Kills and Thrills in Sci-fi Horror “M3GAN”

Christine Nguyen, Managing Editor

In the first two weeks of its release, horror-comedy film “M3GAN” killed it at the box office, grossing $90 million worldwide. Produced by James Wan and Jason Blum, “M3GAN” was a shoo-in for success. Defying tradition with its existentially horrific and clever technological take on the ‘killer doll’ trope, “M3GAN” presents meaningful commentary on 21st-century parenting wrapped up in a chilling, hilarious, and delightful package. 

Nine-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw), the sole survivor of a car accident that killed her parents, is taken in by her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist who works for Funki, a technologically-advanced toy company. Unprepared to be a parent, Gemma struggles to connect with Cady. Simultaneously, she faces pressure at work — her pet project, the Model 3 Generative Android (M3GAN for short), was shut down after being deemed expensive and unprofitable. In an attempt to resolve both problems, Gemma pairs M3GAN with Cady and gives the AI doll one objective: protect Cady from harm. 

Without specific parameters, it’s no surprise M3GAN does exactly that and takes it too far. Soon, protecting Cady means violently eliminating any potential threat, whether it’s the irresponsible neighbor, her vicious dog, or a classroom bully. 

Despite its formulaic plot, “M3GAN” shines in its thematic execution. The themes of grief are carried by McGraw’s impressively multifaceted performance. As Cady she is at times subdued, contemptuous, furious, and hurting, adding emotional depth to the character. She latches onto M3GAN in the absence of her parents, seeking reprieve from overwhelming feelings. In a surprisingly touching scene, M3GAN promises to help hold onto her memories of her loved ones, offering a comfort that Gemma cannot.

In fact, there are many things M3GAN can do that Gemma cannot — namely, be a parent. Endlessly patient and cheerful, M3GAN provides Cady with all the entertainment she wants, leaving Gemma with “time for the things that matter most,” as the product pitch for M3GAN advertises. 

But in the end, M3GAN does nothing more than distract Cady from confronting her emotions and healing. Although the AI doll is far more advanced than any 21st-century kid’s iPad, the dangers are the same: an overreliance on technology leaves children emotionally stunted and helpless without their screens.

However, “M3GAN” balances its heavy themes with campy characters and absurdist humor. The titular robot’s sass and snark make for a delightfully bad, self-empowered villain viewers almost want to root for. Paired with her tendency to randomly break out into dance or song, it’s no surprise that Gen Z audiences are so charmed.

Despite its moments of hilarity, “M3GAN” is, at its heart, meant to frighten. The film racks up tension with zoomed-in shots of M3GAN’s face — cold, calculating eyes and a knowing smile belie a sinister intelligence underneath that perfect porcelain face. But beyond her disturbing ability to run on all fours, M3GAN’s biggest fear factor lies in her brutality — M3GAN has zero compassion for human life, if the cruelty of her kills is any indicator.

Though the film is more reasonably-paced in the first and second acts, “M3GAN’s” conclusion crams the climax and resolution into an adrenaline-filled 20 minutes, leaving audiences with little time to process M3GAN’s defeat. While viewers may be relieved to see Gemma and Cady ready to embark on a new journey together as a family, the happy ending doesn’t feel completely earned. 

The heartfelt moment in which Gemma promises to work through their grief together is sweet, but the film fails to justify why a workaholic like Gemma would suddenly be willing to take up parental responsibility. Nor does the film justify why Gemma is the most suitable caregiver for Cady, over Cady’s willing grandparents in Florida. One would think that building an irresponsibly-coded AI to parent in her stead would be enough to disqualify her.

Still, for a run-time of under two hours, “M3GAN” makes its point succinctly. As funny as “M3GAN” is, its themes are all too real — perhaps the true horror is losing future generations to the technology of this era. 

Delivering its message in an unforgettable way, “M3GAN” is a refreshing and hilarious spin on a tried-and-true trope that might pave the way for new, innovative takes on the horror genre — starting with its sequel, greenlit for January 2025. The iconic killer doll will be back for more laughs, maybe more screams, and hopefully, live up to the poignancy of its predecessor.