Most people probably wouldn’t give much notice to a news feed story about a snowy car crash. Accidents happen all the time in snow country. But to vacationing nine-year-old Cady, it was an event that took her everything. The crash stole away her mom and dad. And it left her battered and bruised, physically and emotionally.
It also left her with someone who didn’t really want her.
Now, that’s no slight against Cady’s Aunt Gemma. She’s not a bad person. Gemma is simply an overworked, thirtysomething robotic engineer who’s ill-equipped to deal with a kid being dropped in her lap. And their awkward interactions with each other prove that in spades.
However, Gemma does have one thing up her sleeve. She just happens to be working on a new project that she had been keeping under wraps at the popular toy company she works for. Her Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN for short, might just be the ticket. So, she takes Cady in to show her the kid-sized AI construct.
And everything goes perfectly.
Not only does the robot properly pair with Cady, it also instantly starts playing on the little girl’s level. It’s exactly what Gemma was hoping for. And at the same time, her generally pessimistic-minded boss, David, watched the whole process and was instantly sold. This could literally change the entire toy market, he notes, not to mention make Gemma’s career. Yes, the prototype robo hasn’t been properly tested, but maybe time with Cady could do just that.
For Cady, M3GAN becomes a friend and companion who always listens, always plays. The remarkable android teaches Cady things she needs to know, and it dedicates its digital existence to keeping Cady happy and safe.
And for Gemma, her latest brainchild becomes the babysitter she desperately needs so she can get back to her normal life. And if M3GAN also continually grows and adapts—learning just as it should through its internet connection and the social circumstances around it—the situation could be downright perfect.
There is, however, one little problem that no one anticipates. The internet paired with cold robotic reasoning are not necessarily what you’d call fonts of moralistic insight. That might not have been foremost in Gemma’s engineering mind. But maybe it should have been.
Because when M3GAN senses any danger that comes Cady’s way—such as an aggressive neighbor dog with sharp, snapping jaws; or a local bully boy with a rough mean streak—the android has no compunctions about applying a little super-charged robo-correction. She can sweetly sing a bedtime song; gently wipe away a little friend’s tears; and drop to all fours to aggressively chase off a bullying brat with equal easy skill.
And if said bully ends up broken, torn or, say, dead … well, so be it. Cady, after all, is kept safe. So what does it matter?
That’s what friends are for.
In one sense, M3GAN does exactly what she is programmed to do. She cares for, teaches, listens to, plays with and protects Cady with every non-beat of her robotic heart. She becomes the ever-watching eye of a parental figure and friend who never backs down and never hesitates to protect. And in some ways, you can’t help but cheer for this single-minded robo friend—especially in light of all that’s been taken from Cady.
For instance, during a demonstration for investors, Cady breaks down, weeping about the loss of her parents. M3GAN quietly comforts her and takes the time to help the girl think of fond memories that she can cling to.
However, there’s a not-so-fine line between protection and cruel choices when it comes to M3GAN’s delivery of justice. There is no right or wrong for her, just “care” and protection. And that sometimes translates into heartless disregard for human life that becomes more Terminator-like and brutal as she “learns” from the web-connected resources at her disposal.
On the other hand, Gemma has some learning to do as well. And she slowly realizes all the ways that Cady has been hurt and damaged, all the things that the young girl must work through. As Gemma wraps her brain around Cady’s needs, she begins to embrace a more motherly role, reaching out tenderly to her niece. Ultimately Gemma puts everything on the line to embrace and protect Cady.
In true sci-fi fashion, this pic makes an analogical point that technology, the internet and social media are no substitutes for parental time and love. And it suggests that adults who lean too heavily on those things usher their family members into dangerous territory.
When Gemma first ushers Cady into her house, her digital assistant device announces that Gemma has “five Tinder notifications.” Gemma quickly changes the subject.
M3GAN’s unexpected moments of humor somewhat soften the story’s edgy violence. That said, the film is still packed with sometimes bloody bashabouts (leaving people with bloody scratches and torn body parts), even when the goriest possibilities are kept just off screen.
Two people are stabbed and killed by the broken blade of an office paper trimmer. A boy has his ear pulled and ripped off. And then he’s chased and eventually tumbles down a hillside and out in front of a speeding truck. We see his bloody boots as he’s placed in an ambulance. (This bully had earlier forced a sharp object into Cady’s hand and pushed her around.)
A dog drags M3GAN through a hole in a fence and then bites Cady’s arm. Later the animal is grabbed and dragged off yelping. An older woman is sent sprawling across a room by high powered water spray. Her hand is then nailed to the wall by a nail gun, and she’s poisoned by weed killer.
Several other people get battered, strangled and bloodied.
[Spoiler Warning] M3GAN is eventually torn apart, sliced with a weed whacker and destroyed. There are four deaths total—all of which are relatively bad or deceitful people.
There’s one f-word (delivered by a child), more than a dozen s-words, and one use each of “h—” and “b–ch” in the dialogue. “Oh my God” is spit out six times, and Jesus’ name is harshly abused 10 times. There’s one crude reference to male genitalia.
Gemma’s corporate boss hands her a drink while talking about her future contract.
Little toys that Gemma’s toy company employers make tend to focus on potty humor gags such as making gassy noises and dropping little pellets out of their backside.
When Cady first moves in with her aunt, Gemma tosses her an iPad (to keep her busy). Cady wonders about the screentime limits that her parents used to impose. “I don’t care,” Gemma casually replies.
When Gemma’s associate sees how Gemma is using M3GAN with Cady, she wonders, “I thought we were creating M3GAN to help support parents, not replace them.” Gemma shrugs the suggestion off.
Someone steals important computer files.
There is something equally cute and creepy about M3GAN (the film and the AI robot).
This robot is something like that incredible toy you once squealed gleefully over on your 10th birthday. She’s also that glinting-eyed doll that made you cry out in shock when you caught a glimpse of it sitting on a shadowed chair. Those combined character elements blend together with a compelling story and sardonic humor to give this pic surprising appeal.
If you look a bit closer at this picture-perfect android, you’ll also notice that she has even more programmed into her motherboard. For with the right tip of the head and the flick of a multi-lensed eye, you’ll spot something of a sci-fi cautionary tale here: a warning to parents that turning your child over to the care of today’s techy wonders can come at a very high price.
For all of those positives, however, there is another tiny Terminator boot a’ dropping: M3GAN, with her kewpie-doll perfection and girl’s-best-friend charm, is also a steely eyed killer. The just-off-screen goriness gets tamped down to PG-13 levels, but it’s bloody nonetheless. And the film’s language delivers some sharp cuts of its own.
Creepy and cute. Those words don’t always sit well together. But they are part and parcel here. You’ll need to embrace both in equal measure if you invite this dolly to sit on your knee.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.