There’s a movie genre I tend to find moderately amusing but cannot in good conscience respect: the meme flick. You know what I’m talking about. Snakes on a Plane.The Grumpy Cat Christmas movie starring Aubrey Plaza. The upcoming Cocaine Bear. These are forthrightly bonkers movies that exist so people will watch them at least semi-ironically and post about them online. They are the cinematic equivalent of a novelty T-shirt bought off Instagram. M3GAN is this type of film too—the trailer appears precision-tailored to go viral on Twitter—but it is so well done, it transcends its kitschy category to become something greater.
The plot of M3GAN is a mashup of evil AI and evil doll narratives. It can be described with equal accuracy as either “stupid Ex Machina” or “yassified Child’s Play.” A brilliant, neurotic roboticist named Gemma (the sublime Allison Williams) finds herself the guardian of her niece, the recently orphaned and slightly spooky Cady (Violet McGraw). Ill equipped to nurture a grieving child (and desperate to sell her boss on a sophisticated, absurdly expensive android toy she’d been working on in secret), Gemma hastily programs the toy (M3GAN, or Model 3 Generative Android) as a protective companion for Cady. She forgets a few key lines of code, though … like parental controls and instructions not to murder. So when M3GAN perceives threats to Cady, she eliminates them. When Gemma gets wise to the homicidal nature of her creation, M3GAN starts seeing her creator as a threat too. I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess at least 80 percent of what happens.
So what makes M3GAN special? The tone. It’s exuberant. As a horror film, M3GAN is decidedly light on scares. As a comedy, though, it’s killer. M3GAN dances, she sings, she plays ballads on the piano. She sashays around, looking like a pastiche of Renesmee from the Twilight series and those creepy Shining twins. She’s the most charismatic horror-comedy villain since the smart Gremlin in Gremlins 2. (And, like Gremlins 2, M3GAN manages to be winking and self-aware without becoming grating—a feat more difficult than it sounds.) People at my screening were cracking up from the opening scene to the over-the-top finale. It was, in all seriousness, a giddy moviegoing experience.
Now, to address my inflammatory headline: M3GAN is the first movie I saw in theaters this year. A few weeks ago, I saw Avatar: The Way of Water (in three dimensions, the way director James Cameron intended it to be seen). It will be difficult for a modestly budgeted genre film with a competent but nonfamous director to compete with the extravagant sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time, directed by a modern master. But, on merit alone, it should.
Avatar: The Way of Water looks fabulous. Its special effects are a legitimate marvel and achievement. But its plotline is somehow even more insipid than the original’s reheated Fern Gully romance. In a moment where any film that isn’t part of a superhero franchise gets graded on a curve for at least attempting to be something other than a soulless money-grab, the critical response to Avatar: The Way of Water has been, I suspect, considerably warmer than it would be in a less anemic environment. Cameron is capable of creating great artbut The Way of Water is not art at all. Instead, this belated return to Pandora is great spectacle. Visually dazzling and narratively vapid, it is enormous fun to go see in a packed movie theater and then to never think about again. In this way, it is a thorough retread of the first Avatarswhich in the years following its release developed a surprisingly durable reputation for its lack of reputation.
M3GAN is also great spectacle. Its storyline is almost exactly as ridiculous as Avatarsand the two movies are almost equally fun to watch on a big screen, ideally surrounded by a shooting, hollering audience. But here’s where M3GAN has the edge: Its appeal hinges on its frothy sensitivity rather than visual effects. (It also clocks in at a much more reasonable run time.) Seeing Avatar: The Way of Water Without the right pair of 3D glasses will lessen its charms; M3GAN can play on the most dilapidated screen and retain its silly allure. This quality will give M3GAN a longer shelf life—it seems destined to take its place in the sleepover-movie canon—but does not diminish the appeal of seeing it in a communal setting. The ultimate meme flick deserves to be a shared experience.