M3GAN’s Uncanny Valley Effect on Cinema Goers

IT’S NO SURPRISE BLUMHOUSE & JAMES WAN HAVE GONE ON TO CREATE YET ANOTHER NEW HORROR ICON FOR THE 21ST CENTURY WITH M3GAN.

M3GAN (2023, UNIVERSAL) A roboticist designs a lifelike doll programmed to bond with her newly orphaned niece, however, the robot becomes violently overprotective of its new friend in M3GAN from BLUMHOUSE, ATOMIC ROBOT, DIVIDE/CONQUER. Directed by Gerard Johnstone. Written by Akela Cooper from a story idea by James Wan. Music by Anthony Willis.

How has a viral dance meme and an alliance with a pop superstar gone on to create a new horror icon? The first of the TikTok generation? I’ll tell you how, and it’s all because of little girls. 

You see, little girls have always been obsessed with horror movies, more so, I think, than little boys. I can recall my own youth, and yeah, my buddies and I really loved the scary movies and the girls we knew pretended they were too scared to watch them. But we always knew the truth.  Long before there was “NETFLIX & Chill” there was the old days of Multiplexes and Drive-Ins. Back when we’d go to the mall, and we’d see all the girls who protested the horror films, standing in line to see the same scary movies. It was free hug night from scared puppy love dates, be you a little boy or little girl.

Jason Blumhouse and James Wan have recognized this, and have taken advantage of horror’s new wave of diversity to create something special. Films like HAPPY DEATH DAY and FREAKY were meant to appeal to the tweener girl audience- but they also had crossover appeal to other demographics. Both films made a ton of dough versus their budgets. I guess I’m not going out on a ledge here when I say Blumhouse has perfected this formula. And now? I believe they have very likely made their grand opus with M3GAN. A PG-13 horror film for teenage girls that will appeal to all horror fans in general. A movie that oozes this text being sent to another Gen Zer: “Did u sneak in to c M3GAN?”

M3GAN stars Allison Williams (Girls, GET OUT) as Gemma, a successful computer programmer, robotics designer. After a tragic auto accident, her niece, Cady, played by Violet McGraw (DR. SLEEP, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, READY PLAYER ONE) moves in with her. McGraw is a joy to watch on screen. She’s already a horror vet at such a young age. Gemma is responsible for a Teddy Ruxpin/Furbies type toy called the FUNKI. But it’s her dream to make M3GAN (MODEL 3 GENERATIVE ANDROID), and she takes advantage of the death of her sister to push forward her creation. As you might assume, it doesn’t end well for all the parties involved.  

The central themes of M3GAN surround loss and death of a loved one, and dealing with grief. The film is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much technology during the emotional development of children. It’s more of THE TV WILL MAKE YOU BLIND IF YOU SIT TOO CLOSE TO IT trope, however it’s become an all too real problem- much more real than the lie your parents told you. That evolved into people “using their TV’s as babysitters.” We’ve since moved on to the computer age where we question when we should buy children their own cell phones. Heck, the movie starts with an argument over how much screen time is appropriate for a child, becoming the catalyst for the film’s events.

M3GAN asks the right questions, as any good sci-fi should do. Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park resurfaces, the age-old question first proposed by the Mother of Modern Horror and Sci Fi, Mary Shelley, in FRANKENSTEIN. And M3GAN brings it back to life: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This isn’t new ground for Blumhouse. They visited this trope with their cyberpunk sleeper hit UPGRADE in 2018. In fact, this film is coated in Blumhouse tropes, down to elements of ANNABELLE (killer doll). In this case it’s focused on the negative effects technology has on empathy, especially in the developing brain of an 8 year old girl. And how do many young people escape reality? Through music. #TalkAboutThatSoon

The months of marketing using pop megastar Taylor Swift’s music in the trailer (She’s officially bigger than the fucking Beatles, folks) have seemingly paid off with a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. My own theater, when I purchased tickets, was mostly empty. But by screen time the entire upper deck was filled. Word of mouth on this film is spreading fast, and it will surely surpass its measly $12million budget by the end of Friday’s screenings. Will it go on to topple James Cameron’s AVATAR powerhouse on the top of the Box Office? I won’t be surprised if it does, especially with the power of Taylor Swift’s legion of fans behind the film. 

Will I say something stupid on social media if M3GAN beats Avatar at the Box Office?
WILL I SAY SOMETHING STUPID IN AN INTERVIEW IF M3GAN TOPPLES AVATAR AT THE BOX OFFICE?

There’s a small irony there, I think, in that M3GAN has elements of Cameron written all over it, from THE TERMINATOR to ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL. The strong, mostly female cast, is another element I think Cameron would be proud of, as he spearheaded such characters with Sarah Conner and his interpretation of Ripley in ALIENS. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the soundtrack is a key element in making this film work. Not only do we have the Taylor Swift Effect, we have Dolls from Bella Porch. The song, also used in the trailers and in the film, is just damn creepy lyrically, and all too appropriate for the plot. Anthony Willis’s score also borrows heavily from pop music, ultimately creating an aural Uncanny Valley. A piano riff to Martika’s 90’s classic Toy Soldiers, for example, resonates through one particularly harrowing scene, where revelations are made and we are thrown into the film’s intense third act. But here’s the thing. It’s not Toy Soldiers. It only sounds like it, and it bothers you because of it. And that, my friends, is the definition of Uncanny Valley.

M3GAN is a well written, by the numbers sci-fi horror affair, starting from the cold open (reminiscent of THE DESCENT) up to its climax. And this is where I think screenwriter Akela Cooper (MALIGNANT) is at her best, she sows the foreshadowing seeds, all of which pay off in the third act. Cooper’s sly humor is evident, as shown within the script’s intentional black comedy spread throughout the film. She spreads the deck of potential victims, and not everyone introduced gets put through the meat grinder, which helps lend to the suspense. Students of fiction and screen writing should start studying Cooper’s work. She knows her job and executes it like a surgeon. She showed how much she can think outside of the box in MALIGNANT. Here? She plays INSIDE the box to tell a story that needs to be understood by its targeted audience: young women. At times the story plays on how a preteen girl would react if she were as strong and powerful as the titular robot. I imagine many a young girl has fantasized tugging on the ear of a bullying older teenager to make them stop misbehaving. 

This is where much of the film’s satire comes into play. The movie doesn’t breach new ground within the sandbox Cooper has created. What it does, instead, is poke a bit of fun at the killer robot genre. Often the dialogue seems silly. And it is meant to be, right down to the sitcom of a visit from Child Services. I’m certain many middle school teachers over the next few weeks will have this movie quoted to them by students. It’s chock full of one liners, many of which we’ve already heard in trailers (“Hi, I’m Megan!”). I’m also positive there will be many a M3GAN trick-r-treating come Halloween.

But much of the horror creepiness on the screen is a result of the uncanny valley effect M3GAN creates. Yes, you want to laugh when you see her chasing Ronnie Chieng’s David (basically playing a wink to producer James Wan) down a hallway, but you can’t laugh because it’s downright terrifying. Our antagonist is mostly practical effects, and the robot’s cold, emotionless silicone face reminds me of Papa from Ghost in his mask. Amie Donald plays M3GAN’s body, but her voice is provided by Jenna Davis. She serves us M3GAN’s dialogue with the cold delivery of a TikTok voice over. And it’s that voice that reminds me of a feminine HAL2000 from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Gives me shivers thinking about it. 

One part WESTWORLD and one part CHILD’S PLAY, with M3GAN, Blumhouse has proven themselves as the premiere horror studio, creating yet another horror icon for the 21st Century. And this one isn’t a clown, or a nun, or a fucking shiny vampire. It’s a good, old fashioned doll. It’s always the fucking dolls, isn’t it? Just sitting in the corner, staring…  or is she waiting for you to activate her by saying “Hey, Alexa”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Tom…”

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