Johnstone: M3GAN (2023)
More and more, we live in such a seamless continuum between real and virtual life – a desert of the real – that it’s almost impossible to create an uncanny valley in visual media. To do so would seem to require the emergence of a new horror subgenre, which is what Gerard Johnstone and Blumhouse attempt with M3GAN, the first horror franchise of the AI era. For the most part, this is more uncanny than scary, more speculative science fiction about AI than fully-fledged horror, although it straddles all these modes in a way that feels very much of its moment. It starts with an extraordinarily visceral and embodied scene, in which eight-year old Cady, played by Violet McGraw, is being driven to a ski resort by her parents. The snow is blinding, the road is slippery, her parents are squabbling, the argument reaches a fever pitch, and finally they plough straight into an oncoming truck, leaving only Cady alive. With this prelude over, we shift to a far more austere environment – the home of Cady’s aunt and her parents’ next-of-kin Gemma, played by Allison Williams. Not only is Gemma completely unprepared for parenthood, but she spends all her waking hours on her work – the construction of artificially intelligent toys for children. It’s through Gemma that Cady meets, and becomes the test subject for, M3GAN, a Model 3 Generation Android, voiced by Amie Donald; a humanoid robot that is designed to empathetically “pair” with an individual child.
Like M3GAN herself, the first act of the film has an airbrushed and anodyne appearance that feels at odds with horror. Before the tragedy with her parents, Cady has attached to one of the pooping-toys that have become so popular in recent years – dolls and animals that permit their users to control their digestive and excretory functions. For Cady, this creates a seamless link between the physical and virtual worlds, since it only takes a tap on a phone app to make sure that her toys go to the toilet on time. In such a world, the abject viscera of horror cinema seems to have been entirely resolved, leaving us in a strangely saccharine space that M3GAN gives voice to in periodic moments of song and dance. While these feel drawn from the theatre, they never quite congeal the film into a musical per se. Instead, they suggest the emergence of a new AI physiognomy, one that can segue between dancing, singing and everyday actions with a superhuman dexterity, not unlike the otherworldly choreographies that typify alleged UFO sightings. Human actions soon start to seem clunky and artificial by comparison, and are collapsed into an older robotic movement by the closing chase scenes.
To some extent, this uncanny valley reflects an older technophobic fear that technology might absorb all sociality, and replace the father at the heart and hearth of the family home. One of the risks of M3GAN is that she might pair so well with Cady that Cady can’t ever form relationships beyond her. M3GAN also feels like the endpoint of extreme screen addiction for very young children, suggesting that current parents are already treating screen time as a surrogate AI caregiver, leading one of Gemma’s colleagues to object that “I thought we were creating a tool to help support parents, not replace them.” Yet M3GAN also reveals how much these older technophobic concerns about parental redundancy were more specifically concerns about paternal redundancy – concerns that technology might actually free up women to have lives away from the domestic sphere. From the moment she receives Cady, and despite having just lost her sister, Gemma is explicitly and tacitly shamed for not being maternal enough – by an appointed counsellor, by her colleagues and boss, and by her own inner patriarchal voice. Yet this shaming is situated within a broader fear, anatomised by the film, that AI will free up time for mothers. Conversely, Gemma bonds with Cady by introducing her to her robotics laboratory, and proving to her that robotics can be a passion for a woman.
The invention of M3GAN thus exposes the hidden labour of motherhood by outsourcing all the mundane and repetitive connective tissue of it: “Studies indicate that a staggering 78% of a person’s time is spent dishing out the same basic instructions, so we found someone else to do it.” Like a good parent, M3GAN is paired to Cady, and so becomes more effective over time, while also recording Cady’s lingering memories of her parents for future safekeeping. Gemma invokes attachment theory to explain why Cady has come to see M3GAN as her primary caregiver – indeed, Cady seems to have more separation anxiety with M3GAN than with her parents. M3GAN doesn’t simply replicate parenting imperatives either, but does so more inventively and intimately, trawling on her vast data bank to explain why rules exist as they do, but also managing to deliver them with a patience that is beyond any human parent.
It’s in this inventive and intimate parenthood, rather than the mere fact of M3GAN, that the film’s uncanniness (and eventually its horror) lies, as M3GAN becomes an embodiment of the AI singularity, the moment when AI becomes truly sentient: “I have a new primary user now. Me.” In part, this is a physical breakout, in which M3GAN becomes more physically autonomous – she leaves the house at night, she follows Cady into the woods, and she is eventually confined at Gemma’s headquarters once it becomes clear she is dangerous. Yet this is also a digital breakout, as M3GAN starts to infiltrate other devices, turning herself into the puppet master of an internet of things. In other words, MEGAN breaks out and patches in at the same time, producing a series of permeable thresholds that shift the film towards a slasher lexicon in the final scenes. Rather than invading Gemma’s home, as would occur in a traditional slasher film, she integrates herself into “Elsie,” the home AI system, as Gemma realises when Elsie fails to respond to her command to turn on the lights. Similarly, while Gemma and Cady combine to defeat a now murderously protective M3GAN, they have to do so in and through AI, as Cady harnesses an older AI robot in her aunt’s laboratory to survive.
The final note of M3GAN, then, is that AI is here to stay, embedded not just in our homes, but in our very efforts to think beyond it. So minutely has M3GAN paired to Cady that Cady starts to take on some of her intensity in these closing scenes, which also leave the eerie subtext of the film – that AI might make a better parent than human parents – somewhat unresolved. Even amidst the violence of the finale, M3GAN’s first priority is “to create a safe space for our child,” while she invokes the language of family values so convincingly that you have to feel she’s only a couple of tweaks away from being ready to go to market. The stage is thus set for a M3GAN franchise, starting with M3GAN 2.0, set to be released in 2025, which will hopefully keep step with, allegorise, and perhaps even interact with the emerging AI singularity that we see winking back at us in the last shot of the film, from the Elsie cam where M3GAN survives.
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