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    “M3GAN,” Reviewed: A Clever, Hollow A.I. Spin on “Frankenstein”


    The essence of genre is effects without causes—things showing up to fulfill expectations rather than dramatic necessities. “M3GAN,” a science-fiction-based horror caper, provides a clever batch of these effects in this gleefully clever twist on the “Frankenstein” theme, and its director, Gerard Johnstone, seems to be laughing up his sleeve throughout. It’s that very knowingness, the deftness with which the film gets a rise from viewers, which makes a good time feel hollow. There’s a different, far more substantial movie lurking within, yet the virtues of efficiency, clarity, surprise, and wit that enliven the one that’s actually onscreen leave its merely implied substance tantalizingly unformed.

    Allison Williams plays Gemma, a type-A robotics engineer with a big toy company in Seattle, Funki, that prospers by selling cheesily interactive furry toys called PurrPetual Petz. Gemma has bigger ideas. She has been working in secret, along with a pair of colleagues (Jen Van Epps and Brian Jordan Alvarez), on a boldly ambitious, potentially transformative project: a lifelike, life-size robotic doll equipped with A.I. that will serve children as a ready-made and full-time friend on demand. While Gemma is working, tragedy strikes: her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car crash. Her young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), survives with only slight injuries, and Gemma becomes her legal guardian. Gemma, who lives alone, has little talent for parenting; on Cady’s first night in her aunt’s pristine house, Gemma reminds the child to put her bedside water glass on a coaster lest it stain the wood of the table.

    Meanwhile, Gemma’s boss, David (Ronny Chieng), discovers Gemma’s secret invention and angrily orders her to work on a boringly commercial project. Instead, Gemma goes rogue and gets the titular A.I. robot ready for a test—for which she recruits Cady. (With its silicone face, M3gan, voiced by Jenna Davis, is eerily similar to a real child—a white girl, though Gemma and her colleagues foresee marketing the robot in a variety of shades to reflect different ethnicities. There’s no talk of a male version.) Cady quickly grows attached to M3gan (an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android), and Gemma brings the robot home, three birds with one stone: a playmate (and distraction) for Cady, a break from parenting for Gemma, an extreme test for the potential product. Gemma gives M3gan a mission to protect Cady from “emotional and physical harm,” but has neglected to build parental controls into the device, and has also neglected to build in guardrails of conduct, the mechanical equivalent of a moral code. Soon, M3gan, programmed to link with Cady as the primary user, takes the task of protecting her with ferocious literalness. A neighbor’s dog is perceived by M3gan as a mortal enemy; so is the dog’s owner (Lori Dungey); so is a bullying child (Jack Cassidy). Even a sympathetic psychologist (Amy Usherwood) risks being labelled a menace.

    Johnstone endows M3gan with an arch, chilly, and chilling repertory of facial expressions and verbal inflections. The A.I. device’s learning curve is prodigious, and what M3gan calculates, very quickly, is that the best defense is a good offense. It goes from learning to recognize toys and means of conveyance to the use of power tools, driving a car, and computer hacking—and turns into a devastatingly efficient, ever-improving killing machine. What’s more, with its singular mission to protect Cady getting defined ever more broadly, M3gan becomes as hostile to anyone who’d shut it down as to anyone who’d mean harm to Cady. The robot’s mounting megalomania is the most fascinating aspect of “M3GAN”: in effect, the living doll turns into a little dictator and discovers, by way of its interaction with humans, how to instill fear—with taunting, with humor, with sarcasm, with lies, and with threats of cruelty. And, when threats turn into realities, M3gan has an autocrat’s instinct for covering tracks, destroying evidence, creating plausible deniability, and, when necessary, silencing witnesses.

    The simulation of a mental life for M3gan is the most absorbing part of the movie. Johnstone (working with a script by Akela Cooper, who wrote the story with James Wan) offers images from M3gan’s visual point of view—a video screen that shows the robot’s camera scanning the environment, framing people and objects, and, in superimposed text, calculating, in real time, human subjects’ range of emotions, on a numerical scale. In these fleeting images, “M3GAN” passes into the question of what it would be like to be M3gan—whether an A.I. robot can be considered to have a sense of identity and an inner life, and, if so, what that experience would be. How does M3gan’s computer memory relate to human memory? How does its array of perceptions get converted into decisions? The mere tease of a theme is all the more frustrating inasmuch as impersonation proves to be one of the robot’s more fascinating skills—synthesizing the voices of others, for good or ill—and memory turns out to be one of its more useful functions, as a seeming repository of its owner’s life, a vast stock of home video and voice recordings.

    If the movie suffers from the absence of a more substantial development of the titular robot’s character, it’s not least because “M3GAN” similarly stints on developing its human characters and doesn’t suggest what it would be like to be any of them, either. The script’s tut-tutting sketch of Gemma’s cold careerism, indifferent parenting, and hubristic engineering is suspended in a void that’s filled merely by Williams’s actorly presence and her recognizable persona. Cady is similarly undefined, and the supporting characters of colleagues and corporate overlords are reduced to clichés. (The movie merely winks and nods at the issue of children’s screen time.) These stock characters and the conventions that they fit into are ready-made to serve as a solid communal basis for daring efforts and wide-ranging audacities—to meet expectations in order to go beyond them. Instead, they merely furnish a flat backdrop to the exuberantly diabolical display of M3gan’s Machiavellian wiles and the Grand Guignol ingenuity of its methods of mayhem. ♦

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