The new version of “Child’s Play” hitting theaters this weekend is a story of capitalism and consumerism gone awry; it is our connected life gone villainous; it is our desire for ease turning into our undoing. Plus, it’s the story of a doll who enjoys killing.
Directed by Lars Klevberg with a screenplay from Tyler Burton Smith, this version of the killer doll story abandons any sort of mystical mumbo jumbo involving the soul of a killer entering an innocent doll. In its place is a disgruntled employee in a Vietnamese factory who, upon learning he is being fired, disables all the protective protocols which would stop the Buddi doll, who comes to be known as Chucky, from doing bad things.
If any part of that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s with good reason. One can point to any number of movies, television shows, books, etc., which pit our technology against us for one reason or another. Here, with “Child’s Play,” the most direct antecedents feel like Isaac Asimov and his Laws of Robotics, and “Terminator: Genisys.” It makes for quite the mash-up.
Some backstory seems important… the “Child’s Play” franchise, and the killer Good Guys doll known as “Chucky,” first hit our screens in 1988. To this point there have been seven films in that original timeline and there’s some talk of a TV series coming to Syfy. Due to rights issues (this piece can explain it), Orion pictures can remake the original, which is what they have done here, while that other timeline exists elsewhere.
It is a weird setup to be sure and causes instant backlash for this new Chucky (who is now a Buddi doll instead of a Good Guys one and voiced by Mark Hamill to boot). The important question though is not whether this film will win over the fans of the original timeline (many fandoms, of late, have proven wholly intractable in their beliefs and utterly unwilling to accept anything that might change the way they view the works), but rather whether it’s good in its own right.
In short, 2019’s “Child’s Play” is… okay.
At the heart of the story is still Andy (here played by Gabriel Bateman) and his mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), and the doll that decides that killing is a way to win friends and influence people. In this case, lacking Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (“a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”) Chucky goes on a murderous rampage because he just cares about Andy and wants to make the guy happy so they can be best friends. Essentially, Chucky’s rampage starts because he perverts the second law (“a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”) and sees Andy’s upset not quite as orders, but rather desires that he, Chucky, can fulfill. Once Andy disabuses him of this notion, Chucky jumps to a modified version of the Third Law (“a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law”).*
*Intentional or not, the clear parallel between the film and Asimov’s work again show us that the 20th Century author understood the pitfalls of robotic technology inside and out. And the removing of the First Law from Chucky is a concept Asimov dealt with in his stories explaining the importance of the Laws.
“Child’s Play,” unlike Asimov’s work, is largely played for laughs here. The dialogue and line readings are over the top and silly. Chucky’s actions are ludicrous as are those of Andy and his friends, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio).
When a joke isn’t in the offing, the film offers up a few telegraphed jump scares and oodles of gore. More than once, Klevberg’s direction makes it quite clear exactly what is going to happen to a victim of Chucky’s and then executes it in disgusting fashion. The camera does cut away from some of the most extreme bits, but the setups and blood spurts make the results more than apparent even when they’re not viewed. One or two bits are relatively inventive and the rest of are simply disgusting. Audiences will, undoubtedly, laugh and squeal throughout the short 88 minute runtime.
Much of this works because Hamill is completely on board in his rendition of the doll. He is sickly sweet when necessary and utterly vile when required. The animation of the doll works as well, making it off-putting from the start.
One of the big disappointments in the film is Plaza not being given more time to go over the top herself. An incredibly funny actress she is relegated to playing overworked, overtired, underappreciated mother who is also treated horribly by her boyfriend. The few times she actually gets the opportunity to shine—like getting the doll in the first place—she makes the most of it, but there simply isn’t much in the script for her to do.
The same is true of Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Detective Mike Norris. Norris’s mother, lives in the building and Norris is assigned to investigate some of the deaths caused by Chucky. It is a little too coincidental that this happens, but Henry’s affability and true sense that Norris cares for Andy helps makes it work.
As for the connected world message, the Buddi doll is manufactured by a huge technology corporation here, Kaslan, and has the ability to work all the connected devices in and around one’s home, from radiators and speakers to computer-controlled taxis. There is a message about Kaslan the company and its owner, Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson), and the desire for profits over everything as well. Both the connectedness and corporate aspects are interesting notions and Chucky makes good use of his abilities with an E.T.-like glowing finger (Andy also dons an Elliott-esque red hoodie for portions of the film, again echoing the Spielberg classic, a riff the filmmakers were clearly going for). However, as with other elements of the movie, one wishes it was pushed further.
Sure to not impress dedicated fans of the original franchise and existing more for laughs than for scares, “Child’s Play” is a bloody but fun time. It offers the beginnings of a conversation about our connected lives, the importance of safeguards, the evils of corporate masters, and the sense of just how quickly blood can spray from a wound. It may not be an Asimov-level work, but that doesn’t mean it’s wholly lacking either.
photo credit: Orion Pictures