‘M3GAN’ is an icon and cautionary tale against tech culture

With her Play Doh-y silicon face, soulless side-eye and keen fashion sense, the internet absolutely lost it when M3GAN arrived on the scene last October. She could drop deliciously shady one-liners and unnerving TikTok dances just as flawlessly as she could hunt down her victims on all fours. She was a star.

The much-hyped and critically acclaimed sci-fi horror comedy “M3GAN” has resonated with audiences with its skepticism of tech, but that didn’t stop director Gerard Johnstone from checking his phone every few minutes when the trailer was first released. Faster than you can say, “This is the part where you run,” “M3GAN” amassed a rapturous fandom, spawned countless memes and earned the admiration of celebrities from drag icon Trixie Mattel to rapper Megan Thee Stallion. She appeared on the cover of this month’s issue of Fangoria, feuded with Chucky on Twitter and staked her claim as a queer icon and the evil doll of a generation. 

“I didn’t expect it at all,” Johnstone told SFGATE over Zoom recently. “You always expect the worst … that you’re going to spend all this time and money, and the trailer is going to come out, and it’s like you can hear a pin drop.” 

That being said, the director thought it would be ideal to convey a message about the chaotic world we live in by not taking the film too seriously and having fun with it. “Let this robot go off the rails and run free. Because I think that’s the best way to deliver these allegories about where we’re at,” Johnstone said.

And it worked. 

The film about an artificially intelligent toy who becomes self-aware and goes far beyond the duties coded for her by robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams of “Get Out” and “Girls”) premiered in theaters over the weekend to a $30.2 million box office debut, far surpassing its $12 million budget. It boasts a certified fresh 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — the New York Times called it “ludicrous” and “irresistible,” while the AV Club described it as “patently silly and self-aware,” lauding M3GAN as “an instant icon.” A sequel is reportedly already in the works, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe that our pint-sized antihero won’t have her own haunt at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights later this year. 

In the film, Gemma works for Funki, a Hasbro rival that produces a line of toys called PurrPetual Petz (think FurReal Friends, but with more fart jokes). When another toymaker rips off the concept and sells a near-identical doll for half the price, Funki’s CEO (Ronny Chieng of “Crazy Rich Asians”) is desperate to undercut the competition and sell an even cheaper model of the Petz.  

Gemma has other plans. After her sister and brother-in-law die in a tragic car accident en route to a ski trip, their 8-year-old daughter Cady (Violet McGraw of “The Haunting of Hill House”) is left in her care. Though Gemma’s brilliance is clear when it comes to developing new toys, she doesn’t know the first thing about being a guardian and struggles to bond with her niece. 

Enter Gemma’s secret project — the Model 3 generative android, or M3GAN for short. She can walk like a human, talk like a human, create lifelike watercolor paintings, record memories and even identify learning differences in children. When Cady first meets M3GAN, they hit it off immediately — it’s the first time the child has opened up to anyone since losing her parents. But as M3GAN’s technology advances, she veers away from mundane tasks like reminding Cady to use a coaster and things take a deadly turn in her mission to keep the kid out of harm’s way at all costs — and be a true friend to the end

“M3GAN” seems like a film ripe for a December release, becoming another cautionary tale about the perils of consumerism a la “Gremlins” and an essential part of the holiday horror canon. But Johnstone (who made his directorial debut with the comedic thriller “Housebound” in 2014) wanted to broaden the ambition of his film.

“When the script came to me, I was a new parent at the time, and I was like, holy s—t, this is about all the things that I’m dealing with right now in terms of the social anxieties around technology,” Johnstone said. “You can’t go to the store and buy a cool toy for a kid without it needing to be connected to an iOS device or an Android device. That immediately creates so many questions.”

Director Gerard Johnstone on the set of “M3GAN.”

Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

The film’s release coincided with a recent surge in the use of AI-powered art and chatbots, such as the San Francisco-headquartered OpenAI, which developed the image generator DALL-E, as well as apps like Replika that allow the user to have a conversation with a virtual companion. Johnstone said that such learning models weren’t household names when he started working on “M3GAN,” but they increasingly played a role in the making of the film.

“Back then, it was mostly a problem of parents chucking iPhones and iPads at kids and calling it a day,” he said with a laugh. “It was everyone being glued to their phones … how it felt like to be living in a ‘Black Mirror’ episode when we couldn’t even see it.”

For “M3GAN,” Johnstone approached OpenAI in its early stages (the company was founded in 2015) in order to better understand how the technology worked. He also sought input from Pieter Abbeel, a professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Berkeley Robot Learning Lab, and Alex Kauffmann, a technical project lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects lab. 

“[Kauffmann] really helped us understand how the computer brain works,” Johnstone said. “And the conversations with him were really illuminating because I started to realize that even if the computer’s not self-aware, the behaviors and the capabilities are sufficient that if it decided to just do what it was going to do … that was scary enough on its own.”

M3GAN is portrayed by Amie Donald and Jenna Davis.  

M3GAN is portrayed by Amie Donald and Jenna Davis.  

Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

M3GAN herself is a delight to behold. On the surface, she’s like an American Girl doll engineered with the killing instincts of the Commando Elite in Joe Dante’s “Small Soldiers,” or if Talking Tina from “The Twilight Zone” could sing “Titanium” by Sia and David Guetta. Bringing the robot to life on the big screen required two actors (12-year-old dancer Amie Donald was her physical stand-in, while Jenna Davis provided her voice) and a combination of animatronics, puppetry and visual effects. 

While producer James Wan (“Saw”) has described M3GAN as “Annabelle meets The Terminator,” Johnstone told SFGATE the uncanny valley appearance of the world’s first robot citizen, Sophia, and the cadence of Apple’s Siri were also a point of reference for the character, as was Boston Dynamics’ 5-foot-tall humanoid robot, Atlas.

“As soon as I saw Atlas running, jumping, flipping … that was a huge influence, just seeing everything that they could do,” Johnstone said. 

Some of the similarities to the humanoid robot, though, were purely coincidental. “It’s funny, because that viral dance the robots did … that came out when our film was already in the can,” he said.

The scene where M3GAN saunters, twirls and flips at the end of a dark hallway (like a “twisted Shirley Temple,” as Johnstone describes it) is equal parts unsettling and offbeat — and it was not part of screenwriter Akela Cooper’s (“Malignant”) original script. Johnstone has said in previous interviews that he “just kind of snuck” the sequence into the movie “to see if anyone would say anything.” Originally, he did not want to give it away in the trailer, but was quickly convinced to do otherwise. 

“When the film came out, that was one of the things about it that Universal first responded to,” he said. “They were like, ‘This is insane.’”

Cady (Violet McGraw), M3GAN and Gemma (Allison Williams) in "M3GAN," directed by Gerard Johnstone.

Cady (Violet McGraw), M3GAN and Gemma (Allison Williams) in “M3GAN,” directed by Gerard Johnstone.

Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

An ironic challenge for Johnstone was working with AI consultants on a film that intended to tell audiences why they should be skeptical of the technology.

“With ‘M3GAN,’ we wanted to talk about generative technologies that can learn on their own unsupervised, and how far they could go,” he said. “I think people who work in tech are really fascinated by that idea, as opposed to people like us who were making the movie, we were really anxious about it.”

Andra Keay, the managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, had a different point of view. They said that while “M3GAN” is clever and fun, Hollywood’s depiction of AI in film at large may be missing the mark.

“Perhaps as our machines have become more complex and lifelike, we need to explore the uncanny edge or the dark side of the mirror,” Keay told SFGATE in an email after watching the film over the weekend. “But these tropes are very frustrating for roboticists who are trying to promote real robots that can start to solve some of our giant global problems, from food insufficiency, supply chain inefficiencies and global pollution, to supporting healthy aging at home.”

Keay also pointed out that portrayals of robots in film often reinforce gendered stereotypes that women are supposed to be helpers, not leaders.

“Should we stop building female robots? Or robots that look human?” Keay said. “Definitely.”

M3GAN, Gemma (Allison Williams) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in "M3GAN," directed by Gerard Johnstone.

M3GAN, Gemma (Allison Williams) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in “M3GAN,” directed by Gerard Johnstone.

Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures

After making the movie, however, Johnstone has a word of caution for the tech sector as it plows into AI.

“By all means, see how far you can push this technology,” Johnstone said, “But think about the people you’re making it for at the same time and what effect it’s having on them, and whether or not we’re ready for it.”

It’s hard not to heed Johnstone’s warning: San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently had to reverse their decision allowing police to have access to killer robots. AI-powered apps are invented with the purpose of making call center workers sound white and American regardless of the country they’re from, and driverless cars and automated restaurants may very well be eliminating entire workforces.

The final shot in “M3GAN” lingers not on the robot, but Elsie, an Alexa lookalike in Gemma’s home, leaving the viewer wondering about the acceleration of everyday technology and whether it can be trusted. And the message certainly resounded loud and clear with audiences — at least in my own experience. 

As my friend announced when the credits rolled, “I’m throwing my Google Home in the trash.”

Source link

Denial of responsibility! planetcirculate is an automatic aggregator around the global media. All the content are available free on Internet. We have just arranged it in one platform for educational purpose only. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials on our website, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.