By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The entire time I’m watching “M3GAN” in the theater, I’m imagining not a brilliant computer mind scheming its next move, but a table of writers saying to each other, “Hey, how about she does this?”—and every single one of their ideas is a scary movie or robot movie cliché.
You know the plot, easily, from the preview (and almost every movie about AI ever made). The robot based on human utopian ideas (or laziness) turns into a monster out to kill everyone. The story is in part by James Wan, who also produced the film, and is well-known for the “Saw” and “The Conjuring” franchises (and then for some reason—“Aquaman”). I know Wan knows his genre and I know the genre is horror. I know it doesn’t have to make sense. All it has to do is scare you (check). But bear with me as I walk down a little road called “alternative plotlines.”
Humans are so afraid that their AI creations are going to turn on them—at the same time as we careen headlong into coming out with AI creations as fast as possible. But we also know they are based on us. We program them, right? So presumably they are only as smart as we are. But then we have these AI robots like M3GAN that “learn”—so they evolve. Why would M3GAN evolve to be an evil hell spawn running on four legs and stabbing people for fun? If her objective is to protect Cady (Violet McGraw), whose parents died in a car accident, and that’s her ONLY objective (and also give Cady’s lazy guardian, Gemma, free rein to continue her pre-Cady life), why is the only way to achieve that objective is by turning her into a demonic lunatic?
Presumably M3GAN has not only the ability to evolve but also 24/7 access to…what? All the internet, all the information in the world, every person’s computer—and the household appliances, apparently. She doesn’t even have to plug in, like ever. I guess she uses Wi-Fi.
If she has this access, why would she conclude, as the writers lamely wrote in, “humans kill each other to make their lives more comfortable” (eh?) instead of “humans also help each other all the time.” Or—stay with me—why would she think she needs to kill everyone in her path to Cady rather than using some clever scheme to get her way? She’s supposed to be smart, right? But she acts like a room full of dumb people using every horror movie move possible to make you jump.
“M3GAN” is definitely a stay-at-home movie. The person eating popcorn right next to me for the entire 90 minutes only enforced this conviction. M3GAN the robot is not nice from the get-go. Her maker, Gemma (Allison Williams), is not nice either—this connection is not made and Gemma does the requisite “evolving” herself throughout the film, from reluctant guardian to someone with a spark of motherly instinct. Gemma mourns, almost not at all, at the death of her sister. She’s just annoyed at the interruptions to her work. So, brilliant-idea-Gemma thinks, what if I give Cady a creepy untested mechanical friend to read bedtime stories to her instead of me?
The actually brilliant outcome of this terrible move is the child psychology lesson we all get when Cady becomes way too dependent on M3GAN and develops quite an attitude. McGraw, a horror movie veteran, does an excellent job portraying the inevitable as Cady morphs from a sweet and lonely little girl to a pouty, spoiled brat—and then back to normal. It’s okay to mourn when something bad happens—and not use a robot babysitter as a distraction. It’s also okay to care about people besides yourself. These lessons are really more for auntie than Cady.
Ronny Chieng is great as Gemma’s obnoxious boss. If I say anything negative, it’s only due to my desire for him to grow as an actor—if that’s what he wants. Maybe it’s not! In M3GAN, Chieng plays his Daily Show and standup persona, aggressively sarcastic. His famous line “send it to me before I want it!” is apropos now as the boss who wants everything, and wants it now. He is dressed as impeccably as ever—I spent at least 50% of the movie staring at his precisely tailored shirts—and yet I’d love to see Chieng in something besides his usual wardrobe, and something besides his usual schtick—I think he’s capable of more. This might be his biggest role so far, though, in terms of screen time, even if it’s a one-sided part as a shallow, jerk boss.
This is a good occasion to remember the Laws of Robotics, created by science fiction author Isaac Asimov, whose birthday was just a couple of days before the release of “M3GAN.” (Coincidence? I think not!) First, a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Second, a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law. Third, a robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with law one or two.
M3GAN the robot breaks all of these. They were made up in the first place, yes, but M3GAN does have orders from her “primary” and “secondary” users i.e. humans that she blatantly disobeys quite early on. Her own existence is not necessarily threatened at any time (of course until she becomes a complete lunatic), and there are more conniving, less bloodthirsty ways she could protect herself. Here’s a thought—she could protect herself and Cady by being nice!
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.