‘Child’s Play’ Review: The best toy-related movie in theaters this weekend

Child's Play
Orion
 
 

It’s always bizarre to me when people suggest that there are just certain subjects that horror movies should avoid, for fear of trivializing real-world problems or for alienating an audience. Oftentimes, horror is the only genre that can properly explore these topics while entertaining any given crowd, and it’s really one can only stress the creeping terrors of modernity in a way that feels, well, appropriate. We’ve been doing this for about a century and change in film itself (I highly recommend you check out Wasteland by W. Scott Poole, about how the experiences of directors in World War I helped to create and establish the genre and its conventions), and, hopefully, it’ll continue helping people process their fears well into the future. That said, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play remake — this is 100 percent not a reboot, mind you — smartly and accurately pinpoints our fears about automation and tech monopolies during late capitalism, and it’s astonishing how ballsy and fearless it is in speaking truth to power, fully freed from the responsibilities of “taste.” It’s also a great little slasher, with a solid sense of humor and, of course, some great kills strewn throughout it. But like the other successful modern horror remakes — Luca Gudagnino’s Suspiria, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac — it understands that it can’t compete with the original, and doesn’t even try to. Instead, it establishes its own identity and presses on. 

At the start of the film, we’re shown a promotional video from Kaslan Corp (this world’s Amazon equivalent), advertising the Buddi line of dolls/personal AI assistants, set in the white-backgrounded, wood-paneled homes of an advertiser’s suburbia. Sure, they’re there to entertain your kids and whatnot, but they can also hook up to your smart home hub and adjust the temperature or change your Spotify playlist or whatever with a raise of an E.T.-like glowing finger. They’re also recording you at all times, and storing that information to help them learn. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Well, it is. We cut straight from that idyllic focus-grouped world into the depressing reality of how the Buddi sausage is made: At a horrible little factory in Vietnam, where underpaid workers slave over quotas that they can’t ever hope to accomplish. One worker takes a brief break to daydream, and he’s quickly fired by a boss that just doesn’t give a shit about him. So, he sabotages one of the dolls, removing the safeguards put in place to prevent the doll from learning profanity, or making its own choices, or perhaps committing acts of violence. He then jumps from the roof of the factory, shattering the hood of his manager’s car, and the tampered-with Buddi makes its way on to a truck and onto the shelves of the local Zee-Mart. 

Now, I can understand some level of reticence on the behalf of an audience to engage with the fact that our corporations treat people in developing countries like shit in a genre film. But if you think this is any more tasteful than what Alexander Payne in Downsizing, well, you’re kidding yourself. This entire film is about the destruction that companies like these wreck on the worldwide landscape, and no where is that clearer than when the film moves to the United States. The Chicago of the film is a dilapidated mess of failing infrastructure and perpetual isolation. The wonders that big tech said they’d bring us has only resulted in us retreating to the digital worlds for connection and comfort, and it’s slowly eroding society. Hell, it almost seems like you’ve got two options in the world: Either work for the police department, or work in a big box store fielding complaints from dumb-as-hell customers all day long. That’s where we meet Karen (Aubrey Plaza), a recently-widowed single mother who moved to the city to give her and her shy son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) a fresh start. She wants him to have friends, and to have some sort of confidence out from behind the shattered screen of his smartphone, and he just doesn’t seem to want to.

So, when the tampered-with Buddi doll gets returned to her store, Karen keeps it for herself instead of letting it go to a trash compactor, and gives it to her son as an early birthday present. Andy’s a bit disappointed — after all, at 13, he’s way too old to be playing with dolls — but he humors his mother and starts it up. The doll seems to malfunction nearly as soon as it starts up, but after it connects to the cloud, it seems to Andy that some of the issues have ironed themselves out. It names itself Chucky (Mark Hamill), and soon the doll forms a close bond with Andy, learning and playing along with him. But the faults in the AI’s programming start to quickly show: After the family cat scratches the boy, Chucky lashes out and nearly strangles the poor little fella, and his instincts only grow more and more murderous. The doll believes that if he were able to eliminate all the shitty things in Andy’s life — said cat, Karen’s shitty boyfriend — he might be able to play with him forever!

And so begins the doll’s rampage, in which every single gracious advance in cloud and smart home tech is used against the unwitting people around him. On the trail of whoever is killing these people is Detective Norris (Bryan Tyree Henry), who lives down the hall from the trio, unawares that they’re doll is responsible for this sudden crime spree. And boy, is this crime spree worth writing home about! There’s some excellent gore strewn throughout the film, and the kills are both creative and creepy, especially when Chucky begins to manipulate household tech like a smart thermostat or a drone to deadly ends. Klevberg wears his influences proudly on his sleeve — Hooper (in the form of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre II viewing that inspires Chucky to pick up the knife for the first time), Verhoeven (a small remote control police car shouts out, in full Peter Weller cadence, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me”) — and it’s a spin on this concept that ultimately feels different than Don Mancini’s vision. Not bad, but different, if you can roll with it. 

A number of the performances here are worth of acclaim, including Plaza and Henry, who don’t behave as if they’re above this material, but whose performances summarily elevate it. But if there’s one major fault with Klevberg’s approach, it’s that the movie places too much of a burden on Bateman’s shoulders. It’s not that he’s unable to carry the film, because he does show ample charisma and some humor, it’s just that it relies on him too much to the detriment of the other characters. A similar problem happened with Shazam! earlier this year, and it’s an issue the original really didn’t have, given that the emphasis was placed on Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon. Hamill does a solid job with what he’s given here, and the film doesn’t even vaguely attempt to suggest that he’s a replacement for Brad Dourif’s iconic take on Chucky.

This is a very different character, one that is empathetic from the start, and Hamill makes you feel for his predicament. He’s simply a being caught between his programming and what he thinks his owners want, and that cognitive dissonance drives him mad. Sure, the doll is ugly as hell, but then again, it feels very much akin to the Teddy Ruxpins of the world (anybody else have nightmares about that dumb larva guy?). It’s a weirdly affecting performance, beyond anything one might have expected from it.

I can only hope that this Child’s Play does well enough to inspire subsequent sequels, because god knows Jeff Bezos and company are going to continue integrating themselves into our physical and digital lives more and more with each passing day, and it’s only a matter of time before this fantasy slowly emerges into the world of reality in one way or another. Whether that’s through a death in a self-driving car or a malfunctioning cloud-connected thermostat burning a family to a crisp is unknown, but Klevberg’s film has its finger on the pulse.