Sharp psychological drama about attachment, abandonment and loss masquerading as sci fi/horror. Plays off riffs old – Ripley in Aliens and the elevator scene in The Shining – and new, the “Final Girl” trope aka last person standing of the horror film becomes “Final Child.” While not a slaughter-fest in the Halloween/Friday the 13th vein demonstrates ingenious methods of bumping people off.
The starting point is not, as the trailers and adverts might suggest, the invention of a toy robot companion that evolves beyond initial conception, but a young girl, Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned in a snow plough accident, who is sent to live with workaholic robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams), the least maternal woman on the planet.
In her own mind Gemma has good excuse not to prepare for this sudden onset of parenting by buying some new toys or child-friendly food or creating a playroom. She is on a deadline having spent $100,000 inventing a new doll called M3GAN that, unfortunately, doesn’t work. So tough luck for the poor little orphan until Gemma can enrol the little girl as the test pilot for the Megan experience.
And that’s a hell of a boon for Cady since the cutely dressed doll, about the child’s size, empathizes with her human companion, actually listens to her, can record and store the child’s memories and seems like it’s about to kickstart a toy revolution. That is, until it develops an exceptionally high protectionist tendency.
When its charge is whacked by an unruly boy or menaced by the dog next door, Megan steps in to deal out fitting punishment. Except the doll has no “stop” button and is inclined to go on meting out punishment until there’s no life left in the victim.
It’s not long before Gemma twigs that the doll is turning into one of those mad parents you find in thrillers, or even like Celia (Lori Dungey), the annoying woman next door who cares more for her dog than her neighbors. The signs are there when Cady starts to run amok. Well, not quite amok, but handing out slaps to adults, and reacting badly when deprived, like a child of its computer game, of the companion.
Gemma, whose idea of commitment is Tinder, takes a very long time before she can put the needs of the child ahead of her career, and when it comes to a showdown finds she is not the match she thought she was for her invention, which, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or any other man-made monster since time immemorial, objects to being ended.
The grown-ups don’t come off well here, either idiotically bickering so much they cause the accident that renders the child parentless, or obsessed with dogs or work, and even social worker Lydia (Amy Usherwood) assigned to find out if Gemma is a fit mother seems unsuited for the work, inclined to take a rather robotic view herself of child engagement and certainly playing power politics.
Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng) is a mean-minded insecure obsessive unaware an underling is quietly harvesting his ideas for sale to a rival. All the adults view the child as a doll, a necessary adjunct to show how well the robot works.
Gemma fails to understand, as spelled out by the snotty social worker, that a child who has lost parents will attach herself to the nearest sympathetic person. But Cady, dealing with abandonment and loss, is not the only one with attachment issues. The robot has them in spades, chucked aside on a whim when her creator takes against her or when all attention is transferred to the child.
This all builds up to a tremendous climax when Megan cuts loose in the toy factory, slicing and dicing, and providing the kind of example of her prowess that would have sequel-makers salivating as they detect robot soldier opportunities. And when Gemma tries to bring her to heel finds that (to hell with the obvious pun) the boot is on the other foot.
You can see why this – and other horror thrillers like Barbarian (2022) or Black Phone (2022) that eschewed a conveyor belt of bloody thrills in favor of something deeper – has struck such a chord with the younger audience that makes up the bulk of the audience for Hollywood pictures. This is intelligent. Who hasn’t as a child dreamt of, or even invented, the ideal companion? Who as a child has not thought there must be a better way of being brought up than being left in the hands of parents with little aptitude or interest in the job.
None of these horror pictures has got the slightest chance of being nominated for Oscars while pictures with far bigger budgets, which have not the slightest chance of attracting an audience or are boring them to death, get all the critical hype.
I couldn’t make up my mind whether the doll, being so lifelike, was CGI or human and it turns out she was played by newcomer Amie Donald, though presumably either with a stunt double or a computer doing the crazy dancing. Whatever, the doll is very convincing. As it has to be said, are Allison Williams (Get Out, 2017) and Violet McGraw in her movie debut.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly director Gerard Johnstone, also a movie newcomer, who had the guts to opt for slow-burn rather than visceral fright and develop themes that would resonate with any adult. Screenplay honors go to Akela Cooper (Malignant, 2021) while director James Wan (also Malignant) cops the story credit.
Virtuoso thriller. Can’t wait for the sequel.