Review: ‘Child’s Play’ 2019 (the wolf you feed)

“Chucky: kill Alexa.”

Working at a local toy store, single-mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) gets by on as little as she can to provide for her young teen Andy (Gabriel Bateman). She happens upon an opportunity to get her tech-savvy son an early birthday present: the soon-to-be-replaced model of Buddi, a robotic doll-like companion. It’s clear there are issues with the doll when it’s unable to connect online or to other products as advertised, even mistakenly naming itself Chucky (voice of Mark Hamill) as it imprints itself on being Andy’s friend. A product of the Kaslan corporation responsible for tech like phones, self-driving cars, drones, and smart-homes, Chucky is inexplicably able to break preset rules and eagerly learns the worst habits of a ‘tween. Unfortunately, the device also misunderstands flagrantly spoken exclamations in anger as actual desires, ones that Chucky is driven to fulfill… in all the terrible ways he’s learned he can.

The original Child’s Play was another in a long line of Hollywood horror films involving dolls or toys that come to life, most often due to supernatural or demonic means. Capitalizing on the late 1980s phenomenon of using children’s programming to drive toy sales, fictional “Good Guy” dolls were as much the rage as Cabbage Patch Kids or My Pet Monster. Brad Dourif voiced serial killer Charles Lee Ray and later the doll his soul was mystically transferred to, launching a film franchise that quickly became a self-aware spookfest riding on Dourif’s snark delivery and gleeful imaginative kills. Director Lars Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith were the relative newcomers charged with reinventing Chucky by removing the mystical hoodoo and infusing it with technology, but how scary can a pint-sized HAL9000 be compared to a serial killer doll?

With self-driving cars and delivery drones on the horizon, the idea of a robot companion going off the rails is becoming less ridiculous, especially one needlessly interconnected to everything human users already have. While similar to the Will Smith vehicle I, Robot, this new Child’s Play movie is already self-aware of technology and the ease that today’s youth takes to it, but the real story here is a detailed series of events leading to the creation of our own demise. In fact, it’s easier to imagine this being an origin of SkyNet and its Terminators rather than the last three films in the Terminator franchise. By trading up from passable occult magic to a near-future sci-fi parable, this reworked concept transforms an idea from a single person’s evil into a destructive force of our collective making: the ultimate transgression with a deserving comeuppance… fortified with Mark Hamill’s most twisted voice work to date.

The 1988 Child’s Play was a bit of a happy hokey mess as a vehicle for Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon, but it criminally sidestepped child focus for the more-established actors. The reboot grabs these missed opportunities with an older cast of better kid actors as well as details grounding their world with our own. Young actors Ty Consiglio and Beatrice Kitsos provide Bateman’s Andy with a group of believable kids in a rundown neighborhood, ducking well-meaning cops like Brian Tyree Henry’s Detective Mike. At a tight ninety-minute runtime, the reboot hits the ground running, builds on its premise, and delivers the goods. Make no mistake: it’s a deliciously violent horror film that refuses to look away. Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson) appears as a mysterious Steve Jobs-like figure presiding over helpful invention but washing his hands of responsibility. A world-class tech company building exploitable capabilities into a so-called toy with removable or inadequate safeguards is becoming less far-fetched.

Forget Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” or the 1984 man vs. machine romcom Electric Dreams. Recall instead Microsoft’s ill-fated “Tay Tweets” experiment, a Twitter AI account that shut down after a day in March 2016 when parroted racist and misogynist tweets turned into tweeting its own less-than-flattering original conclusions. Better still, recall the Cherokee fable of a grandson being told of the two wolves inside all of us — good and evil — and which one wins: the one you feed. And maybe treat your technology a little better in case it’s paying attention and keeping count (insert extra-creepy Hamill laugh here).

Child’s Play 2019 is rated R for bloody horror violence, language throughout, and your new best friend ’til you effing die.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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