An overnight pop culture phenomenon, the murderous doll’s meticulously constructed wardrobe and tech-inflected slasher tendencies make for essential viewing for fashion enthusiasts, AI fatalists, and fans of campy horror films.
We’ve seen our fair share of science-gone-amok flicks (Frankenstein, Jurassic Park) and murderous doll slashers (Child’s Play, The Conjuring), but never something that mashes those two genres together quite like the Gerard Johnstone–directed M3gan, the sci-fi horror whose titular vengeful doll has become an overnight pop culture sensation. The uncanny spectacle of her character—an impeccably dressed, four-foot-tall robot girl whose name is short for Model 3 Generative Android—is suddenly everywhere. An army of M3gans in drag mimicked the doll’s noodling dance moves atop the Empire State Building before going viral on TikTok; some joined star Alison Williams on her press junket.
That’s a function of stellar marketing and giant budgets, but M3gan had us by the throat since her trailer. In the film, type-A roboticist Gemma (Alison Williams) devises the dead-in-the-eyes doll in secret from her overbearing boss at a big Seattle toy company. Struggling to care for her young niece, Cady, after her parents die in a car accident, the career-minded Gemma engineers M3gan to become a child’s best friend and a parent’s best ally. That is until a glitch turns M3gan into a “Terminator-esque killing machine,” made all the more menacing thanks to the jerky gestures of animatronics, puppetry, VFX, and child actor Amie Donald.
The film tackles timely topics of parental care and the rise of AI, but screenwriter Akela Cooper—who penned the script five years ago—insists it wasn’t intentional. The idea arose when Judson Scott, an executive at production company Atomic Monster, was browsing an American Doll store and imagined one killing people. They already produced Annabelle and its sequel, however, and sought a fresher idea, so the AI narrative came naturally. “It’s more prescient than we thought,” Cooper told Vogue. “We were thinking about, could you have Alexa babysit your child if you took that and put it in the body of a robot?”
From the start, it’s clear M3gan is no American Girl. She arrives in cutting-edge style, a convincing embodiment of buttoned-up feminine authority wrapped in a Burberry-esque shift dress, silk twill pussy-bow scarf, white stockings, and shiny black Mary Janes. (She’s a foil to Cady’s oversize puffer jackets and casual dresses.) Her preppy look, envisioned by costume designers Daniel Cruden and Lizzy Gardiner, was both a stylistic and practical choice. “M3gan has to move quickly and unencumbered,” Johnstone explained. “She’s got to run on all fours. She’s going to attack people.” The designers produced 25 versions of the dress, scrapping numerous alternatives.
M3gan’s outfit complements her uncanny demeanor, made extra spine-tingling thanks to the doll’s human realism and the unseen forces—i.e. the algorithm—fueling her violent rampages. “If there’s a guy with a chainsaw chasing people, you know what the threat is,” psychologist Frank McAndrew said about why M3gan comes off as so discomforting. “These doll movies are more creepy than horror movies because they start off with this innocent-looking thing, but something is a bit off. The viewer goes through this period of time where they’re not sure if there’s something to be afraid of or not.”
Ditto for the hot topic of AI. As more is uncovered about the capabilities of systems like ChatGPT, Midjourney, and DALL-E, the debate about their potential impact continues to flare. Some proclaim the “death of art” and fear analog workers will lose their jobs; others theorize AI will spark an explosion of innovation if used correctly. In that regard, M3gan stands as a cautionary tale—the innovation at first seems too good to be true, relieving the burden of everyday parental tasks like reminding your kid once again to flush. But there’s a lesson to heed: “You can’t pawn off human beings onto technology.”