‘Child’s Play’ isn’t scary, but may inspire existential tech detox
Move over, Annabelle, the original scary doll is back. Flame-haired talking toddler Chucky returns to the big screen in a reboot of “Child’s Play,” helmed by Norwegian horror director Lars Klevberg, and starring Gabriel Bateman as Andy, Chucky’s new best friend (ironically, Bateman’s sister Talitha starred in “Annabelle: Creation”).
This is a brutally violent reset on the ’80s franchise that ultimately became a punchline, but while it goes big on gore and atmosphere, “Child’s Play” doesn’t muster up any actual scares.
In this iteration, Chucky isn’t haunted with the spirit of a dead serial killer. Nope, it’s something far more sinister: corporate malfeasance. Chucky is a Buddi doll, manufactured by the Kaslan Corp. (think Apple/Amazon/Google). If Alexa, Siri, Roomba and Uber were combined into one terrifying talking child doll, you’d have the Buddi, which “imprints” on its “best friend” for life and serves as a bizarre little smart home and virtual assistant.
In a prologue, we see a tormented factory worker in Vietnam disable all the controls on this particular Buddi’s microchip before committing suicide. It’s actually surprising, and also refreshing, that this “Child’s Play” has more political commentary than scares.
Single mom Erin (Aubrey Plaza) finagles the techno-toy out of the return bin at Zed Mart for her son, Andy, the new kid on the block who is suffering for companionship. His only friend is Detective Mike (Brian Tyree Henry), who visits his mom down the hall. Never mind that Chucky’s eyes flicker from blue to red troublingly, Andy embraces his new friend, though he’s a bit old for the toy.
Lonely Andy has it rough with his mom’s terrible boyfriend, and Chucky is programmed to make Andy happy, no matter how much blood he has to spill. Talk about clingy!
One wonders if Chucky was predestined to be evil with his controls disabled, or if it comes from learned behavior. Andy’s got a complicated home life for Chucky to learn, and his new tween pals fill his motherboard with a steady diet of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and dirty words. When it comes to murderous sentient dolls, could it be nature or nurture?
There’s a lot to like about the new “Child’s Play,” including its irreverent tone, reverent ’80s vibe and fantastic design. The elements are there: an all-time great score by Bear McCreary, excellent cinematography by Brendan Uegama, who pushes the blue/red theme visually and gets off several absolutely stunning shots, a chilling voice performance from Mark Hamill as Chucky himself. But it doesn’t hang together as a movie. Rather, it just an extended riff on themes about the dangers of artificial intelligence through the familiar Chucky iconography.
There’s a thick residue of irony the film can’t shake, and it’s not just the famously ironic Plaza, who gives her most grounded and sincere performance to date. It’s the script, by video game writer Tyler Burton Smith, which loosely links together interesting but one-dimensional characters, the obvious cultural metaphors, political issues and the killer doll, of course. Several moments feel entirely shortchanged, and it’s unclear if they were written that way or if the story suffered in editing.
Not to mention that despite the blood that flows in Chucky’s wake, the film just isn’t scary. Who would have guessed that a “Child’s Play” film would leave us with less popcorn-rattling jump scares and more existential questions about the role of Alexa in our lives?
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman.
Directed by Lars Klevberg.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Rated R for bloody horror violence, and language throughout.