Allison Williams has a knack for playing it straight. She brings a convincing realism to the most preposterous situations or maybe she’s just an actor with limited range. Whatever the reason, it works, especially in the tricky genre where comedy meets horror. She excelled in a critical role in “Get Out,” and now in “M3gan,” a ludicrous, derivative and irresistible killer-doll movie.
Williams plays Gemma, a robotics engineer with no maternal instincts who suddenly must take care of her young niece, Cady (Violet McGraw), after a car accident turned her into an orphan. The synthetic skin of this movie is about how Gemma learns to take care of a child. Thankfully, its bloody heart is far sillier. It’s the comedy of a primly composed mean-girl android turning into The Terminator.
This is the kind of scary movie that needs a lead performance that is strong not fragile, deadpan not showy. Williams capably updates the mad-scientist archetype, refusing to pause and ask questions while inventing a doll of the future, one who pairs with a child and adjusts to their needs, filling in as best friend and big sister. Gemma uses Cady as her test case.
In a headier movie, there might be some misdirection. But M3gan (performed by Amie Donald) is clearly pure evil from the start. She’s a great heavy: stylish, archly wry, intensely watchful. Her wanton violence never gets graphic enough to lose a PG-13 rating. In early January, when prestige holiday fare tends to give way to trashier pleasures, a good monster and a sense of humor can be enough. This movie has both, and it makes up for a slow start, some absurd dialogue (“You didn’t code in parental controls?”) and a by-the-book conclusion.
While the trailer invited comparisons to “Child’s Play,” the slasher film featuring the doll Chucky, that movie had a much grimier, disreputable undercurrent before the sequels and reboots turned goofy. “M3gan” moves with a lighter touch. There’s a scene where a police officer who is investigating the disappearance of a dog blurts out a chuckle, then apologizes, saying, “I shouldn’t have laughed.”
I would have preferred a handful more guilty guffaws, though there are a few, including one where M3gan treats a real bully like a doll, with disposable parts. But the tone here sticks to just enough camp to keep the crowd smirking. The director Gerard Johnstone doesn’t go for elaborate suspense sequences or truly intense scares. He wants to please, not rattle. And while there are some hints at social commentary on how modern mothers and fathers use technology to outsource parenting, this movie is smart enough to never take itself too seriously.
It’s helped by the comic Ronny Chieng playing Gemma’s boss, a forever annoyed toy manufacturer who, at a rare moment of contentment, trash-talks Hasbro. Any horror fan knows that his jerkiness is as much a sign of impending doom as coeds having sex at a summer camp. When the moment arrives, it does not disappoint. M3gan struts, cartwheels, dances, makes no sense at all. What a doll.
Rated PG-13 for cursing, a ripped ear, ruining your childhood. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.