Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the film M3GAN. Continue at your own risk.

Let’s be real. No one was expecting the new Blumhouse/James Wan collaboration, M3GAN – which essentially unfolds, in practice, as a kind of giddily self-aware mash-up of the Child’s Play and Terminator mythologies, underlined with a “Mad Magazine” sense of humor – to be conventionally good.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t look like fun. The opening weekend box office receipts are in, and M3GAN is, in fact, good, if undercooked in a critical manner which will be elucidated upon in due course. It’s certainly not hard to see why audiences flipped out for the trailer, which went viral thanks to some TikTok-inspired dance moves performed by the overprotective, homicidal child cyborg whom the movie itself is named after.

Indeed, against all odds, M3GAN – which has been directed by Gerard Johnstone, from a script by Malignant writer Akela Cooper – has been greeted with acclaim, in critical circles as well as with audiences.

Image via Blumhouse

Perhaps if M3GAN were rated R, it would be afforded the privilege of being able to fully realize the lunatic possibilities baked into its premise. The PG-13 version that many people bought a ticket to see this past weekend is a clever, self-critiquing, ultimately very tame slice of neo-horror camp: a tongue-in-cheek techno-allegory laced with about as much satirical subtext as your average episode of Black Mirror. Come to think of it, that winking, flippant attitude might be part of why M3GAN isn’t the junk landmark it clearly should have been, though the real, overriding reason is hidden in plain sight: M3GAN needed to be rated R.

The PG-13 Rating Holds It Back

That’s right, everyone: this film’s PG-13 rating is actively holding it back. Here is a movie that should have been a rude slice of R-rated social horror in the Larry Cohen vein; if only the filmmakers (or studio) had the courage of their convictions to take things a little bit further than they did in practice! In M3GAN, we are presented with a promising procession of fruitful horror scenarios, almost all of which lack a payoff. A sweet neighborhood dog is gruesomely endangered. A cruel bully has his ear twisted into a horrifying new shape. A supporting character is stabbed through the chest with a paper cutter.

RELATED: How Does ‘M3GAN’ Set Up a Sequel?

Does what we’ve just described sound like a movie that should have a PG-13 rating? In any case, nearly all of these aforementioned ingredients are straight out of your average hardcore Shudder-friendly frightfest, only, in the end, M3GAN isn’t nearly as nasty as it wants to be. The positive flipside to this is that the movie’s attempts to shock aren’t strained – if anything, Cooper, Wan, and Johnstone’s approach opts for a more creepy-crawly form of attack, one that purports to study how our most up-to-the-moment technological advancements only end up divorcing us from our innate human needs.

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Image via Universal Pictures

What Is ‘M3GAN’ About?

Some plot essentials for those who have yet to see the movie: M3GAN opens with a cheeky faux advertisement for a high-end toy company, Funki, who are advertising their latest boutique product to consumers. We then meet Gemma, a roboticist played by Allison Williams, who enjoys a high paying gig at Funki. Gemma also happens to be the aunt and surrogate parental figure of M3GAN’s true lead, Cady (Violet McGraw), a precocious kiddo who tragically witnesses her parents perish in a horrible, snowy car wreck early in the screenplay’s proceedings.

To assist poor Cady in working through her grief, Gemma and her team of crack scientists devise M3GAN herself, or as she’s known in more scientific circles, “Model 3 Generative Android.” Many have compared the M3GAN of M3GAN to a female version of Chucky, but in the end, the allusion is simply too easy: Chucky is the vulgar male id unleashed, and while M3GAN is much better company, she’s not above casting a withering stare or a cutting, passive-aggressive remark in someone else’s direction. M3GAN is ultimately conceived to be a kind of live-in companion and sister figure for Cady; one of the movie’s more trenchant insights is that a child cannot solely rely on technological stimuli as a substitute for individual growth. As such, things take a dark turn, and Gemma begins to put distance between Cady and M3GAN. In turn, M3GAN begins acting like the jilted victim in a 90s stalker thriller, which is another way of saying that she becomes obsessed with protecting Cady and making life very, very difficult for anyone who gets in the way of that task.

Image via Blumhouse

She Fits In Well With The Killer Doll Pantheon

To be clear, M3GAN is working with a pretty irresistible set-up at the outset: even putting aside the rather obvious comparisons to the Child’s Play franchise, it should go without saying that the canon of murderous-toy horror is a curious but enduring one, be it the low-rent stoner schlock of the Puppet Master series to the 1987 curio Dolls, directed by Re-Animator cult filmmaker Stuart Gordon. M3GAN, in spite of the diminished nature of its overall bite, absolutely earns its place in this pantheon, particularly when one considers how dire our average January horror offerings often are. It’s only a shame that the film lacks the conviction to push its wacky premise even further into the realm of the surreal: this M3GAN is fun, sure, but there’s also a more authentically demented film nestled inside, just begging to be unshackled from its PG-13 constraints.

There is also something curiously perverse about the movie’s lack of cathartic release. In scene after scene, the audience is not only denied a bloody payoff, but often supplied a laugh line in place of one. As such, the movie often feels like an updated version of an 80s slasher that’s been incongruously supplied with a laugh track. Truthfully, the result is not dissimilar to Malignant, where the audience is encouraged to giggle and laugh in equal measure, though Malignant audaciously jettisons tonal cohesion in favor of unhinged grindhouse mania.

In the end, M3GAN is an unabashed crowd-pleaser: you’re there to whoop, holler, and cheer, not ponder on the movie’s nebulously defined idea of trauma (ah, trauma horror, the one cinematic trend that never, ever dies). Johnstone’s film knows its audience isn’t expecting anything remotely naturalistic or emotionally grounded; the question then becomes, if everything is one big joke and nothing matters, what does the viewer latch on to? Viewers will no doubt have a good time with M3GAN, but we also have a feeling that the film may attain an unsung-masterpiece status if and when this recently whispered-about “unrated” cut is ever actually released.

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