My favorite way to terrorize my former coworker and current friend is by asking her what will happen when her two daughters — 7 and 4 (their ages, not their names) — eventually become pre-teens.
“Are you dreading it?” I texted her over the holidays, my first instinct after receiving her holiday card. In the photos everyone is smiling, having a fantastic time.
“1000 percent,” she wrote back.
Speaking as a former child and person of eighth grade experience, her fear is warranted. Tantrums, mood swings, and bad behavior all get bigger (and worse) when kids become 5-foot sentient beings. Making everything more terrible, kids are also surrounded by other kids, all of whom are testing the new limits of their own autonomy.
And at that age, I did not fear death or injury the way I did the hot glare from a trio of preternaturally cool girl best friends in my Catholic grade school (I’m not going to name those girls because maybe deep down I’m still terrified of them).
Their friendship was largely and likely based on the coincidence that they all hit their puberty growth spurts at the same time. And not only were they almost adult-sized, they all had older sisters they siphoned forbidden secrets out of, like how one of our teachers may or may not have had a glass eye, or how the eighth grade trip to Catalina Island would require each cabin (one for boys and one for girls) to share two showers, or that flashing the “peace” sign during mass was actually much cooler than shaking hands.
Those girls told us things about the real world that our parents wouldn’t. And if our parents weren’t going to tell us the big truths these girls had revealed, my classmates and I started to wonder what else our families were keeping from us.
Those girls were my M3gan.
On the surface, M3gan is a horror movie about a murderous, rogue AI, but it’s also an hour-and-30-minute camp meditation about how a pretty white girl best friend can be one of the most terrifying things in American life. It’s Sydney Sweeney’s portrayal of Olivia in the first season of The White Lotus or the tweenage girls who gave millennial’s inevitable obsolescence a demeaningly cute name: “cheugy.” It’s Regina George or Heather Chandler, references that tweens would call vintage (or something unintentionally meaner) once you explained to them that there was once a movie called Mean Girls and another called Heathers.
While M3gan — a fancy little robot built to be the best friend of preteen Cady (Violet McGraw) — is indeed capable of homicide, the scariest thing about her may not be that she’s willing to inflict mortal harm. It may be that M3gan has, in a very short time, learned how the world works — that violent boys and biting dogs won’t discipline themselves, that girls who get too smart for their own good get silenced, and that titanium is bulletproof. M3gan knows more about the world than the adults who created her want her to, and that’s a profoundly scary thing.
When toy designer Gemma (Allison Williams) creates M3gan, it’s satisfying because she’s awful at being a parent to her orphan niece Cady. In the run of the movie, the meals Gemma prepares for Cady are: a piece of plain toast, a hot dog, and a slice of pizza with a vegetable topping, all signaling that Gemma does not know how to nourish a child. Further, Gemma doesn’t quite understand how to play with Cady; Gemma wants her to learn how to operate things like levers and switches, while Cady finds happiness in rolling objects like balls. Gemma also doesn’t comprehend how to put Cady through school or teach Cady educational lessons at home. She erroneously attempts to enroll Cady in an outdoor-based school, one that’s seemingly for delinquents.
So when Gemma creates an AI doll that can protect Cady, feed Cady, play with Cady, teach Cady about science indoors, and even remind Cady to flush the toilet, wash her hands, and avoid giving herself pinkeye, it’s nice because it’s nice to be assured that a person we’ve seen fail on multiple fronts can be good at something. Gemma is as good at robotic engineering and computer programming as she is bad at parenting, which means she creates a technological singularity, the most advanced AI that humanity has ever seen, in the body of M3gan, a tiny, caucasian girl robot. (M3gan, like Darth Vader, is played by two actors: voiced by Jenna Davis, embodied by Amie Donald in heavy prosthetics.)
For a certain swath of Gen Xers and millennials, the premise of M3gan is strikingly similar to the show Small Wonder, a sitcom about a robot engineer who smuggles a prototype named “Vicki” (Voice Input Child Identicant) home. The cliche in both Small Wonder and M3gan is that no matter how smart anything — even an advanced robot — can be, it can never truly understand the wrinkles and curiosities of human family life.
In Small Wonder that’s played for laughs as Vicki (Tiffany Brissette) does things like take directions too literally, “dropping” dishes into the sink with a crack and pouring coffee until it overflows. In M3gan what’s lost in translation ends with nightmares, like a neighbor being power-washed to death.
The problem with M3gan is, well, she murders. She murders quite a bit. But it’s not because she’s inherently evil. M3gan’s problem is that she knows how the world works a little too well.
That’s why she chases Brandon (Jack Cassidy), the antagonist at Cady’s outdoor school, to his death. Brandon is a violent bully, perhaps even a future violent rapist. In their encounter, his first instinct is to begin to undress M3gan, straddle her, and then slap her in the face — it’s all a disturbing overture to sexual assault — before M3gan is able to turn the tables. M3gan says that he’ll grow up to be a bad man, implying that because he’s gone this far without any discipline or consequences, he’ll just get worse and worse. Maybe M3gan has read the headlines.
To M3gan, Brandon is just like the dog next door (which she also kills) that mauls Cady’s arm. Brandon will never get punished or reprimanded; he’ll probably just be sent to a different school where he’ll terrorize another girl, maybe one that doesn’t have M3gan’s tools to fight back. So M3gan eliminates the threat, pulling off his ear and then chasing him into the street like a dog, only to see him plowed down by a car.
After Brandon dies, Gemma and Cady (with M3gan observing) discuss Brandon’s death. In an attempt to comfort Cady, Gemma fires off the platitude that “he’s in a better place.” Gemma, who again is bad at parenting, is also a terrible liar. Getting hit by a car and dying is not a better place than a cushy, affluent outdoor school in the Pacific Northwest.
Later, when Cady asks M3gan if what Gemma said is true, M3gan tells Cady that heaven isn’t made for boys like Brandon. What Cady and Gemma don’t see, but the audience and M3gan do, are Brandon’s actions before he’s run over. Is M3gan wrong in her assessment? No. She has a much better understanding of the violence Brandon is capable of than Gemma or Cady.
M3gan takes the idea of a kid knowing too much about the world and grafts it to an extreme premise, stretching it to the point of absurdity. But the kernel of fear that it begins with isn’t as alien as it seems.
Parents are entrusted to teach kids how life works, but because they’re adults who have lived a while, they also know the cruelty that the world is capable of. Parenthood then becomes the impossible task of balancing how much to teach kids about life and when. Obviously, you can’t start off knowing how bad things really are. So parents sell a hopeful view to their children, and keep the terrible stuff close to the chest for as long as they can. And a young girl — and study after study say that girls develop their brain functions and connections earlier than boys — who isn’t blind to how brutal the world can be is scary because she’s a threat to the optimistic world adults offer.
Gemma is rightfully afraid of the murder M3gan is capable of, but she isn’t afraid of M3gan physically hurting Cady. Gemma is much more scared — again, correctly — of the person M3gan is teaching Cady to be.
In the wake of M3gan’s $30 million opening weekend domestic box office haul (versus the film’s reported $12 million budget), there are whispers of a sequel already in development. Director Gerard Johnstone and screenwriter Akela Cooper left the ending open.
Throughout the movie, as M3gan gains sentience, she also starts hacking into other computer-operated objects, everything from Gemma’s smart office to the cloud where M3gan’s GPS data is stored to the electric sports car M3gan hijacks at the end. One of these objects is Gemma’s Elsie, a Siri or Alexa-like virtual assistant that controls Gemma’s home. In their big fight, M3gan seemingly shuts down Elsie and the power in Gemma’s house.
After Gemma and Cady defeat M3gan and are rescued by police, Elsie powers on again. But she doesn’t seem to be working normally. The final shot of the movie zooms in on the buggy Elsie, signaling that M3gan’s consciousness will live on via virtual assistant.
The other avenue for M3gan’s survival is paved earlier on. In the second act of the movie, Kurt (Stephane Garneau-Monten), Gemma’s boss’s assistant, sneaks M3gan’s data files onto his computer. M3gan eventually kills Kurt, but before he dies she tells him that she knows about how he hacked in and took the files.
Another film would allow a little more time to contemplate Gemma’s culpability here, beyond her role as M3gan’s creator.
Gemma says herself in her initial pitch that M3gan allows her to do things she wants to do with her time — and what she wants to do is anything but parenting. It so happens that all of the threats M3gan sees as dangers to Cady are also threats to Gemma and her ideal life of being a full-time robotics engineer.
If Brandon survived, he would’ve bullied Cady out of the school and perhaps forced Gemma to homeschool Cady, something she absolutely doesn’t want to do. Gemma’s nosy neighbor Celia (Lori Dungey), who owns the dog that bit Cady, would’ve eventually told the cops about M3gan, and they would’ve taken away Gemma’s parenting robot. Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng) and his assistant Kurt want to hijack Gemma’s creative vision. While it’s unclear if she programmed these threats on purpose, Gemma does seem to be an AI savant.
No matter how this all shakes out, I hope that the sequels continue to play with the subversive idea of a pretty murder doll. The contrast between the gore M3gan’s capable of and her delicate appearance is the camp engine that has driven this movie to success. And the only thing more terrifying than a M3gan is obviously a teen M3gan.