On The Screen: M3GAN’s meme-worthy marketing belies a horror hit

M3GAN gets her chance to slay.

It was love at first sight. The first trailer for “M3GAN” was released on Oct. 11, and the world was introduced to a horror film where the villain was a murderous children’s toy that does TikTok dances — a yassified Chucky.

That dance scene, taken out of context, where M3GAN swings her arms, does a front flip, a cute twirl and kicks her leg up before pulling a blade, was alone enough to bring me onboard. I’m always prepared to watch a dumb fun horror film, especially one coming out in the reliable January drought.

I didn’t realize until later that the film had something of a pedigree behind it. “M3GAN” is produced by Jason Blum and James Wan, two of the most reliable names in contemporary horror. Blum produced “Halloween,” “Get Out,” and “The Invisible Man.” Wan created “The Conjuring,” “Saw” and “Malignant.” Story and screenplay writer Akela Cooper wrote Wan’s “Malignant,” and wrote on “TRON: Uprising,” a personal favorite.

“M3GAN” was a must-watch for me either way, but with that creative team, I began to suspect that the film could be something special — “M3GAN” hype was pretty high in my household in the weeks leading up to its Jan. 6 release.

The film absolutely lived up to expectations. Despite its meme-worthy marketing, “M3GAN” is a total hit. The film brings campy horror fun to light up January’s pretty dry movie slate.

The film follows Violet McGraw’s Cady and Allison Williams’ Gemma as a less than willing pair. Cady’s parents are killed in a car collision, and the young girl is sent to live with her aunt — brilliant designer for the most advanced and expensive toys in the world, less brilliant stand-in parent to a grieving child.

“I don’t even take care of my own plants,” Gemma says.

Instead of taking the time to build a relationship with the girl, Gemma partners Cady with M3GAN, a passion project, the ultimate toy. She’s an android who pairs with a child and becomes their constant companion.

M3GAN can play with Cady, M3GAN can build a relationship with Cady, and M3GAN can replace Gemma.

As the android grows, it becomes increasingly convinced of the role it’s supposed to play in Cady’s life. When Cady is threatened by a dog or a bully, M3GAN corrects with a heavy hand. When Gemma turns M3GAN off to have a private conversation with Cady, the machine only acts dormant, a dark intelligence continuing to linger behind unblinking eyes.

It’s on the nose, but the film draws an obvious connection between M3GAN’s role in Cady’s life to contemporary youth, who have unprecedented access to remarkably, and increasingly, advanced technology — with impacts often beyond their parent’s understanding. Of particular concern is the development of parasocial relationships with these machines and simulated intelligences over meaningful personal relationships. Cady becomes withdrawn because she gets everything she needs from a machine facsimile of a person.

When Gemma suspects M3GAN is acting maliciously, she struggles to disentangle Cady from the murderous android, her best friend. This of course culminates in an over-the-top finale where the machine finally drops the charade, and becomes the iconic horror villain she was always meant to be. M3GAN gets her chance to slay.

“M3GAN” is not particularly scary, and a PG-13 rating ensures that it keeps most of the bloody violence implied rather than depicted. It is in many cases more fun than fearful, such as in the aforementioned dance scene, during a disturbing cover of 2011 pop banger “Titanium,” and especially when she chases a boy through the forest on all fours like an animal.

M3GAN is fun genre horror, and shouldn’t be overlooked for its Gen Z appeal. The film has been a critical and financial hit, landing a stunning 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and so far bringing in $100 million — against a budget of only $12 million, ensuring a burgeoning franchise. A sequel, “M3GAN 2.0” was announced Wednesday by Wan and Blum’s production companies, already set for a January 2025 release, with Cooper, Williams and McGraw all returning.

“M3GAN” will be playing this weekend at Kenai Cinema. Check showtimes and purchase tickets at catheaters.com.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.