M3GAN Has More In Common With The Terminator Than Child's Play

This post contains spoilers for "M3GAN."

The killer doll canon is a lot more vast than you might realize. You've got your Good Guy dolls, of course, but also your Annabelles, your Talky Tinas, your Fats, your Slappys, and so on. Killer dolls are easy to recognize because they're all inanimate until they're not, revealing their sentience by slowly tilting their head on their plastic neck to give a kid or parent a creepy sidelong look. "M3GAN," Universal's campy and entertaining new horror movie starring a killer doll-like android, rocks hard for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it subverts this doll-comes-to-life trope entirely to dig into deeper ideas about sentience.

Despite being manufactured by a toy company, it turns out M3GAN isn't a doll so much as a tiny Terminator that everyone in the movie (except maybe poor Cady, who clearly doesn't know what emergent algorithms are) knows they're signing up for from the start. The film's producer, James Wan, made exactly this comparison in an interview with Empire Magazine, calling the concept for the movie about an unhinged Model 3 Generative Android "'Annabelle' meets 'The Terminator.'" Wan also explained his interest in stories like "M3GAN," saying, "I'm fascinated by things that are meant to be innocent, but become more ... malign."

Except, the fascinating thing about M3GAN (the doll, but also the movie) is that she's never exactly meant to be innocent. The first time we see the robot doll, she's hooked up to wiring, rendered largely inactive and non-threatening, yet her head still explodes into a fireball. Tech moguls will argue that all technology is inherently neutral, but M3GAN's exploding head is the canary in the coal mine, a reminder that some things are just built to be dangerous.

The movie is clear: M3GAN was never a toy

And yet, no one at Funki so much as considers the idea of going back to the drawing board to safety test a toy that might explode. Blinded by greed and a hunger for "progress," they're more concerned about getting a M3GAN in the hands of every kid in America. This isn't a killer doll movie so much as it is a killer robot movie dressed up in doll's clothing, and that distinction is what makes the social commentary offered up by "M3GAN" much more interesting than expected.

One of my favorite parts of "M3GAN," aside from when M3GAN sings "Titanium" and dances down a hallway brandishing a paper cutter, is the fact that "toy" designer Gemma (Allison Williams) doesn't actually have any toys in her house. She doesn't even seem to understand what toys kids like. That's because she actually makes robots, which thanks to their use of biometrics, machine learning, and surveillance, are a whole other, less inherently innocent thing. "M3GAN" never has that moment in which its killer doll comes to life for the first time, taking a secretive look at the sleeping family she plans to usurp because M3GAN has been nearly alive the whole time. She's been smart and super-strong and apparently combustible from day one, and there are no limitations on what she can learn or do.

Killer robots tap into fears that killer dolls don't touch

Killer doll tales often hint at a secret rot in suburban America, a sense of safety that's violated by someone who wishes to do your child harm. They represent a potent, timeless fear of something that's inherently human; a trusted companion hurting a child. But in the age of TikTok, Alexa, Teslas, and more, killer robot stories now represent something else entirely: a clear and present danger. Sure, it's not likely that we'll all accidentally end up with murderous robot dolls (although movies like this one are the only time I'm thankful the digital divide put me behind decades ago), but we do let dangerous technologies that we know for certain don't have our best interests at heart into our lives every day. "M3GAN" touches on these, with automated cars, home assistants, and smartphones all turning against Gemma, revealing how much power they've had over her all along.

"M3GAN" presents a cautionary tale like "The Terminator" and so many other killer tech films before it, but it also reads differently in 2023 than a movie like this would have just five or 10 years ago. In a post-"The Social Dilemma," post-congressional-hearings-about-Facebook, post-Bo Burnham's "Welcome to the Internet" world, we can't pretend that superpowered algorithms and tools built by massive corporations aren't openly rewiring our brains and harvesting our data. We know they are. So when M3GAN's doll face comes off, first in gruesome chunks like a war-ravaged Terminator and then all together, it reveals not just her wiring but a truth that a killer doll movie never could: the danger is coming from inside the house, but it's not your kid's dolly. More likely, it's the listening device on the shelf next to it.