M3GAN, Gerard Johnstone

‘M3GAN’ Conjures the Horror of Anti-Materialism

At the dark heart of M3GAN is the loneliness we fill with things because we don’t know what else to do. It conjures the horror of anti-materialism.

Gerard Johnstone
Universal Pictures
6 January 2023 (US)

Fifty minutes or so into John Carpenter’s 1983 horror film Christine, the main character Arnie Campbell (Keith Gordon), shares one of many intimate moments with his car, a 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine. In this scene, Christine is battered – savagely vandalized by Arnie’s school bullies. She appears as if she should be left to rust in the salvage yard where Arnie has been restoring her. Arnie is contemplative, not heartbroken. He steps back and gazes at the wreck of his car with an expression of pride and more than a little lust. 

“Okay,” he says as if they are in the middle of a conversation. “Show me.”

In one of the film’s most satisfying sequences, Christine repairs herself, just as Arnie knew she could. 

When we meet Arnie Campbell at the start of Christine. He’s good-natured but nerdy, insecure, and isolated, but close with his more popular friend, Dennis. Everything changes when Arnie buys the broken-down, decades-old Christine from a mysterious stranger who wants nothing more than to be rid of the car. 

Christine’s effect on Arnie’s world is swift and total. By the time she is restored to her former cherry-red glory, Arnie too has undergone a makeover: the thick glasses and pocket protector are gone, replaced by a James Dean wardrobe of white t-shirts and leather jackets. Christine avenges Arnie, literally (by running down – and over – his bullies) and figuratively (she provides him with mobility, potency, and independence). Driving Christine gives Arnie the confidence to pursue, and win over, the most beautiful girl in school.

Indeed, Christine makes real the promise of every car commercial since the invention of the Model-T. This is the promise, in fact, of advertisements for everything, from body spray to Air Fryers: this thing will change your life.

“The things you own end up owning you,” wrote Chuck Palahniuk in his 1996 novel Fight Club, a line memorably delivered by Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in the cult classic film adaptation. It’s a popular sentiment in the late 20th century American media, a time of self-conscious obsession with the morality of affluence. It’s also a strangely slippery idea, difficult to drive home to a viewer. Perhaps that’s because the notion of freeing oneself from material possessions is too simplistic, then as now. Like it or not, people rely on material possessions to improve and shape their lives and, often, to improve and shape themselves. Acknowledging this can be uncomfortable, so naturally, horror movies call upon audiences to contemplate it. 

By the time of Christine’s release in December of 1983 (just eight months after the publication of the Stephen King novel on which it was based), critics were already starting to grow weary of the “haunted object” movie, where unwitting characters are terrorized by innocuous items they’ve found, bought, or inherited. “This time, it’s a fire-engine red 1958 Plymouth Fury that’s possessed by the Devil,” wrote Variety, calling Christine, over the course of their brief review, a “retread”, “deja-vu”, and “shop-worn”. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, praised the acting but wrote that the plot “unfolds in predictable ways.”

Predictable plot aside, Christine is a tonal departure from similar films, with Carpenter’s signature combination of intricate practical effects and naturalistic acting – goofy but sincere. Carpenter is a horror auteur less interested in the provenance of evil than in the effect of its introduction into vulnerable spaces. In his hands, Christine becomes a twisted suburban love story about a young man and his car. While other horror films of the ’80s reflect the era’s anxieties about American consumer culture (Tom Holland’s Child’s Play, most famously; Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, most literally), Christine is concerned with the soul of the individual consumer, with the very real relationships that people in a materialist society form with the things that they own.

Christine’s goal is not to hurt Arnie, punish him for his impulse purchase, or manipulate his mounting obsession. She simply loves him back, and, in the process, ruins his life.

This theme called Christine to mind as I watched Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN. M3GAN, released 40 years after Christine, is a film irresistibly of the 2020s: a work of social and technological horror bearing somewhat tongue-in-cheek concerns over “screen time”, a delightfully meme-able villain, and cursory commentary on the proliferation of artificial intelligence. M3GAN could be viewed as a “retread”, a new entry into a canon of haunted doll narratives already crowded with franchise films like those in the Child’s Play and Annabelle universes. However, M3GAN – when one enters the realm of techno-paranoia – becomes more complicated than that.

In M3GAN, Gemma (Allison Williams), an employee at a high-tech toy company, takes in her orphaned niece Cady after the sudden death of Cady’s parents. Cady and Gemma’s relationship, fragile and volatile at first, is brightened when Cady shows interest in a robot that Gemma built while she was in college. This bonding moment inspires Gemma to complete a project she’s secretly been working on: M3GAN, a lifelike, constantly learning robot doll designed to “pair” with a child to be the ultimate best friend. 

M3GAN isn’t about unexpected evil; the titular entity isn’t haunted, like Chucky, or possessed by a demon like Annabelle. Like Christine, M3GAN’s origins are in plain old American manufacturing: this time, a high-tech toy company. Like Christine, M3GAN is an object with immense power to improve her owner’s life: she provides status and fierce protection, educates, and keeps company. Like Christine, she is loyal by design, and her loyalty eventually presages her violence. 

Christine and M3GAN are stylish, shameless, and better than they have any right to be. Carpenter and Johnstone are savvy enough to know that just because something is silly doesn’t mean it’s not scary. As horror movies go, neither Christine nor M3GAN traffic much in jump scares or gore. Rather, they delight in their villains’ idiosyncratic, unforgettable aesthetics, trusting that they can get your heart racing even while you laugh. 

There is fear to be had here; make no mistake. A ripple of unease flows beneath M3GAN’s slick surface. In his review of the film for the New York Times, Jason Zinoman writes that despite some throwaway dialogue about the impact of technology on parenting, “this movie is smart enough not to take itself too seriously.” Maybe. Maybe a more straightforward warning about the dangers of technology and artificial intelligence would have seemed laughably square in a world where AI is already everywhere. Better to fall back on M3GAN herself, to create a villain so outlandish and memorable that she becomes, in her way, instantly beloved.

Could M3GAN inspire the same amount of pleasure in her audience if she looked like an Amazon Echo? Probably not, no more than Christine could if she were reimagined as a brown Oldsmobile. The warning, whether about muscle car fetishism or placing trust in androids, goes down easier when packaged inside an object so extreme and when there’s no finger-wagging involved over what we encounter every day.

Yet the true horror of M3GAN is the threat of her mass production and widespread use – maybe less because of what M3GAN is and more because of what she was designed to do. In an early montage explaining M3GAN’s capabilities, Gemma (in voiceover) describes the doll as “helping” parents by teaching their children proper etiquette, identifying potential learning disabilities, and reading bedtime stories. “I thought we were creating a toy to support parents, not replace them,” Gemma’s coworker responds, speaking for the audience.

Yes, M3GAN is creepy. Creepier, though, is the idea that people might want her, that there might be a market for those who wish to automate parenting in this way or at least not see M3GAN’s influence as a cause for concern.

M3GAN’s ideas on technology are nuanced for a horror film about a killer robot. Johnstone builds in escape hatches to avoid making sweeping statements about artificial intelligence. As M3GAN becomes more violent, Gemma notices disruptions in her code, indicating that something supernatural (or at least not human-designed) might be at fault. It’s also implied that M3GAN’s terrifying actions could be chalked up to something like user error: if Gemma had been less interested in farming out her parenting responsibilities to M3GAN, maybe M3GAN would not have become quite so…territorial.

M3GAN needs to acknowledge that toys, technology, and other “distractions” (a “distraction” being what Gemma concludes that M3GAN is) are useful or even crucial to keeping children entertained and parents sane. It even pokes fun at those who try desperately to set boundaries. In a way, this makes M3GAN feel so fresh in the horror movie genre: the tone is more resentful than cautionary. At this stage in our AI-saturated, capitalist world, pointing out that technology can ultimately harm human relationships seems redundant and staid. That fact is obvious. Doesn’t it suck, though? 

At the dark heart of M3GAN is loneliness. In particular, the loneliness we fill with things because we don’t know what else to do and because it’s often made easier than reaching out to others. The idea that people can get everything they need by acquiring and owning the right things is easily dismissed in theory but difficult to shake in practice. For better or worse, M3GAN is Christine for a new generation, the central anxieties of a 1983 camp classic about a killer car resuscitated in the first horror hit of 2023.

M3GAN is also a reminder of how complex these anti-materialist critiques have gotten, by necessity, now that even the most ascetic among us regularly outsource so much of their responsibilities and connections to things. M3GAN recognizes that whether we engage with technology or not no longer matters. Instead, it’s a sly reminder of the boundaries we are constantly negotiating, with M3GAN as the latest, most stylish product fighting us for control of our time and lives.