Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: Child's Play (2019)

Child's Play (2019)

Rated R for bloody horror violence, and language throughout

Score: 3 out of 5

The remake of the classic '80s slasher Child's Play is a movie that I should've hated a lot more than I actually did. It makes some drastic changes to the source material, altering the killer's backstory from a serial killer who died and whose spirit possessed a doll to a "smart toy" that went haywire, and moreover, those changes were forced upon the film because Don Mancini, the creator of the franchise, still owns the rights to major parts of it and is still hard at work producing films in that series, the most recent of which, 2017's Cult of Chucky, was surprisingly well-received. This is the first time I can recall when a horror film was remade while the franchise was still going strong, and sure enough, Mancini was not happy about the existence of this film. In short, even before the critics saw it and chimed in, this film had a lot stacked against it in the minds of horror fans for some quite justifiable reasons, with many seeing it as a cash grab.

Which makes it that much more odd that this was a Child's Play movie at all, because the parts that made it work all had nothing to do with the property. Take out the talking killer doll, and you have what could be a solid cyberpunk horror movie in the vein of a Black Mirror episode about a home AI system that goes haywire and starts killing people. In fact, I would've loved to see that version of this film, complete with Mark Hamill still doing the voice of the villain. As it stands, this is still a remarkably bloody and well-made slasher movie that, in its own way, does justice to the original precisely because of how it does its own thing rather than try to follow its beats, one that I think is gonna be rediscovered by quite a few horror fans in the coming years.

Our story starts in a factory in Vietnam owned by the tech company Kaslan, where a disgruntled worker delivers one hell of a "take this job and shove it" to his boss: he disables the AI safeguards on the high-tech Buddi doll that he's putting together, then throws himself from the roof of the factory as it and others like it are loaded into a truck for delivery to America. There, a store clerk and single mother named Karen picks up a certain Buddi doll that had been returned by its owner for malfunctioning and would've been sent back for destruction, and gives it to her son Andy as a 13th birthday gift even though he didn't particularly want it (his interest in the doll being more as a joke than anything). Regardless, the doll, who Andy names Chucky, quickly starts bonding with him and learning from him, whether he's watching horror movies with his friends, getting into fights with Karen's boyfriend Shane, getting scratched by their asshole cat, or just generally being a moody adolescent boy. Needless to say, this is a toxic stew for any "machine learning" software to be immersed in, especially one whose safeguards have been turned off, and pretty soon, nobody around Andy is safe.

The premise is a simple one, and while it's not particularly deep, it's one that the movie handles quite effectively. Chucky can interface with all other Kaslan products, and yes, he exploits this to use all manner of items as deadly weapons, from a lawnmower to water pipes to a self-driving car to drones. More importantly, however, the film does a surprisingly good job making Chucky out to be a very different kind of villain from the pure evil that Brad Dourif plays in Mancini's films. While Dourif's Chucky is effective in his own way, with this version it's clear that Chucky never asked for any of this, being thrown into a terrible environment that his programming isn't remotely equipped to handle. He's a frightening look at what might happen if you put a powerful, futuristic AI home assistant in a broken home without any measures to stop it from becoming just as broken, taking on the worst traits of that home's residents -- especially the young boy who spends the most time interacting with him. Mark Hamill's performance had me feeling genuinely sorry for Chucky, as his efforts to help Andy all seemed to backfire or fall flat on their face, eventually turning him into a classic horror movie monster as he sets out to fix Andy's problems the way he learned from watching Andy: through violence. Andy's actor Gabriel Bateman does a good job conveying somebody who is unknowingly teaching Chucky to be as hateful and vicious as he is, and Aubrey Plaza, finally at the point in her career where she's playing a mom, likewise does well as a somewhat younger version of Joyce Byers from Stranger Things, somebody struggling to make ends meet who you can see falling for a sleazeball like Shane who might help pull her into a higher income bracket. Bateman especially shines as the protagonist out to save his mother from Chucky towards the end.

Andy's friends, on the other hand, felt rather thinly-sketched, a collection of working-class "urban" stereotypes whose actors gave good performance but who didn't really have many layers beyond their first impressions. What you see is what you get with them, and it's odd that two of them in particular, Falyn and Pugg, wind up become major supporting players in Andy's journey. A lot of the supporting cast felt like knife fodder, from the apartment building's perverted electrician to the mother of Andy and Karen's detective neighbor, ultimately falling prey to the same shallow writing that befalls many a slasher movie victim. The lone exception was Shane, the depths of whose douchebag behavior (no spoilers) ultimately make his death immensely gratifying, especially because it is quite possibly the goriest kill in a film that doesn't hold back with the bloodshed. The film's biggest fault, though, ironically has to do with its title. They had to write around a lot of the source material in order to not step into Mancini's copyright territory, and the end result feels like a film that shares the killer doll Chucky and some of the character names with the original, but is straining to break free and become its own film. There were many moments where it felt like the film was going to jump into a deeper satire of tech companies and how we let them into so much of our lives, from how Chucky can turn any "smart device" into a weapon to a kill involving a self-driving car to a scene where two girls are distracted by their phones while their father is brutally murdered behind them. And yet, every time it looks to be stepping into those waters, it steps back to fulfill its obligation as a Chucky movie. As much as I liked Mark Hamill's performance, I'd have loved to hear him as the voice of a "normal", non-doll AI home assistant that slowly goes mad over the course of the film, one set in a "smart home" whose owners, endowed with more money than sense, wired everything up for Hamill 9000 to track every move of his prey, instead of a working-class family who we're told can't afford much of that. Or, alternatively, a film in which the working-class Karen and Andy bought all that stuff for their home because Kaslan sells it dirt-cheap at a loss, the real money being in data harvesting that Hamill 9000 quickly exploits. There were so many interesting directions this movie could've taken with its plot that a basic, if well-made, slasher seems like a bit of a waste.

The Bottom Line

This didn't need to be a Chucky movie, and for reasons both moral and narrative, it probably would've been better off as an original horror story that perhaps homaged Child's Play. But given that this film had everything going against it, it was about as good as I could've hoped for, and one I expect to endure a surprisingly good while.

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