Tuesday 24 January 2023

Devil doll: "M3gan"

The cinema isn't alone in having a silly season, but it may be the only form that runs its silliest material side-by-side with some of its most serious and heartfelt. This January, the already much-laurelled
Tár, Steven Spielberg's autobiographical drama The Fabelmans, and a movie about the lynching of Emmett Till will share multiplex space with an Antonio Banderas thriller that most observers agree should have gone straight-to-taped-over, Gerard Butler essaying a ruggedly heroic pilot in Plane, and Gerard Johnstone's killer-doll flick M3gan, which has hoovered up those few units of currency not already swallowed by the all-conquering Avatar sequel. This last is another of horror shingle Blumhouse's bright ideas: a Frankenstein variant for an era of widespread tech battiness. Gemma (Allison Williams), an inventor for a toy corporation, takes unexpected delivery of niece Cady (Violet McGraw) after the latter's parents are killed in a car accident; to cheer up her young charge, Gemma reassembles the prototype for a previously decommissioned Model 3 Generative Android (hence the title), a walking, talking therapy doll who looks uncannily like Elizabeth Olsen at her MCU glassiest. The idea is that M3gan will lock onto her charge's personality and walk Cady hand-in-hand through the storm of emotions prompted by her parents' deaths. This being the movies, however - where all technology is a bad idea, with the possible exception of the tech used to make said movies - this emotional-support Tamagotchi turns out to be a few patches short of the full security update. And you're not going to get a character like that in Sam Mendes's Empire of Light, are you now?

What follows is almost entirely the sort of film you can imagine, given that premise; the many M3gan memes that have proliferated online over the past weeks can't really count as spoilers, because there's nothing unduly to spoil here. Having come out of nowhere with his fun 2014 breakthrough Housebound, Johnstone now proves he can knuckle down and deliver a movie that delivers more or less what you expect from it: slickly engineered hooey. In the context of the modern multiplex, that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but M3gan can feel a little low-stakes. Not much has been spent on recruitment (Girls alumna Williams aside, M3gan's the real star, given sleek presence by dancer-turned-actress Amie Donald), and this version was pre-cut to obtain a PG-13 rating in the US, so the carnage largely happens offscreen, and its devil-doll enabler often appears more waspish than chilling or vicious. (The whole is easily appropriated for camp, and will almost certainly provide the #1 look of Hallowe'en 2023.) I think there's something deep down in this script about unprocessed grief, which may explain why it's become a lightning-rod movie, landing after several years in which we've all been hustled past the fact millions of people disappeared off the face of the Earth overnight. But it's deep down, glossed over in favour of increasingly mean girl M3gan singing a Barneyfied version of "Titanium", or a midfilm diversion to summer camp designed solely to crank up a middling-to-low bodycount. It is fun: it's rare to catch yourself smiling and chuckling in a multiplex, and then chuckling again at the fact you're enjoying something this fundamentally daft. But it made me wonder anew why Leigh Whannell's visually and narratively wilder Upgrade - Blumhouse's great bad-tech thriller of recent years, more exacting in wondering what effect all this kit is having on our minds, bodies and souls - disappeared almost overnight commercially. Do audiences just want their movies to be Big Memes now?

M3gan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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