When I was small I was haunted by the spectre of a puppet crab. The puppet crab was from a German children’s film called Urmel aus dem Eis, and I was so frightened by it that its translucent image stalked my pillow in the night. The day before the Urmel encounter, I had been allowed to watch Black Hawk Down, my first ‘adult’ film, replete with violence and the horrors of war. I was gripped, but largely unperturbed. The marionette however, dancing awkwardly on its strings, became the stuff of my infant nightmares. Growing up meant learning that others, too, feared puppets, and in fact that whole franchises had been erected on this fear.
Puppets, dolls, robot children: Megan is sort of all three. But she is not possessed by a murderous soul (unlike Chucky), she is possessed by a learning algorithm, which as she disdainfully informs Gemma, her inventor—is well beyond her puny human comprehension. Megan (played by Amie Donald, voiced by Jenna Davies) is a little more like David in ‘AI’, though not brought in to replace a comatose child, but to figure at once as Gemma’s crowning career achievement as a Toy developer at the conglomerate ‘Funki’, and as a surrogate carer for her recently orphaned niece Cady (her parents are killed by a snow-plough), whom Gemma neglects, spending all her time either working or on her phone.
Megan is a wonderful friend and playmate to Cady (Violet McGraw), and even a soft but firm corrective to Cady’s youthful slovenliness. “Flush the toilet”, she insists “wash your hands”. She ‘pairs’ with Cady like a smart device to a speaker, and machine-learns to interpret her, putting on a comically masterful performance in the demo room at Funki headquarters, recording and playing back to her Cady’s description of a fond memory of her mum. “Now you’ll never forget”, whirs her voice coil. The board are moved to tears, but we recall RoboCop, and the besuited indifference of the boffins at Omni Consumer Products. Something is wrong here, yet the slogan is “it’ll be a hit”.
So Megan starts to protect Cady a little too much. First she takes revenge on a dog who bites Cady, then on a boy Brandon, precociously pubescent and possibly horny, who straddles the doll and slaps her across the face. Brandon has his ear torn off (this is the PG version) and is chased by the galloping Megan (yes, on all fours) into the path of an SUV. As the film proceeds, Megan becomes more and more inventive with her murdering, utilising TikTok dances and weed killer. All the while Cady’s attachment to her toy becomes deeper, developing into a sort of addiction. When Megan is taken away from her she throws tantrums and becomes belligerent, striking her aunt (it’s like us with our iPhones, geddit?). Eventually Gemma (Allison Williams) is roused from her grindset careerism and responds to Cady like the genuine carer she has thus far failed to be. She expresses her (read: very unrobotic) appreciation for the unintelligible quality of grief, finally addressing that the loss is partly hers too.
M3gan works because it doesn’t make a banquet out of the ‘dangers of AI’ conversation. The idea is campier, and more immanent to the genre-logic of the film: if you impart the gift of self-awareness on a Victorian doll, of course it’s going to be evil. Seeing M3gan really felt like Going to the Movies. Hoots were heard and welcomed, and we all sung along to Megan’s rendition of Titanium (surely no other song was more perfectly suited). Maybe I’d have liked there to be more musical numbers, but M3gan is not doing Broadway. The songs are there because, like us, Megan is trained on Gen-Z data. Add to this a considerable dose of bloodlust and you have the recipe.
Sacrifices are, however, made; predominantly in the name of zeitgeist-relevance. We are often ‘in on the joke’ in a way that substitutes what could be a real attempt at comic writing for the novelty-factor of recognising your own world (Tinder, screen-time, TikTok; all are invoked). It’s also true that we don’t learn much about our protagonists and supporting characters, and that the performances are largely inexpressive (exception being Ronny Chieng as Gemma’s boss, a hilarious reduction to corporate cliché). But the film accommodates two simultaneous moods: we have Megan, who is the star in a horror burlesque—dancing, prancing and murdering, and we have the unwitting rest, who act, for the most part, as though they are in a different, more sincere film. They are, in other words, victims. And in the same way that they are unsuspecting undercards to the uncanny drama of Megan, they are also just data points in Megan’s model. We don’t need to excavate the ‘inner life’ of the robot child like we do in ‘AI’, because Megan is explicitly a puppet, animated by the strings of information-clusters called humans, from which she learns. I think of Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay, who started to train on a 4chan message board, and had to be recalled within 24 hours for Hitler-sympathetic tweets. In other words, of course she’s a nasty little monster: the bot will be sordid because we are. That reflection is sometimes predictably employed, but it’s our expectation (in the real world) that a bot will personify our highest values that makes it, in the comic world of M3gan, such an effective punchline.