The Child’s Play franchise spans seven films over three decades, all based on the same backstory: Fictional serial killer Charles Lee Ray used voodoo to transfer his spirit into a Good Guys doll (named Chucky by his human), and murder and mayhem ensue.
For the 2019 reboot, however, Chucky, voiced by Mark Hamill, is basically a toy version of an Alexa-powered Echo, a smart device known as Buddi (did you catch that tech-y “i” instead of “y”?), which controls all the internet-of-things objects created by the film’s Amazon-esque corporation Kaslan.
There’s a rich history of tech turned evil in cinema, and Child’s Play had the potential to drag that narrative into hell with the schlocky fun of a slasher flick mixed with the elevated allegories of turning our lives over to our devices, à la Black Mirror. Instead, we get very little bloodshed and an elementary pass at present-day tech.
Here’s how Child’s Play played itself.
***Warning: spoilers ahead (but, to be honest, just read on and save your money on the film)***
Alexa gone bad
Child’s Play opens in a toy factory overseas churning out Buddi dolls. One of the workers falls asleep at his station, gets berated by his boss, and is told to finish his shift and never come back. Enraged, the worker removes all of the safety guards in the programming chip from the doll he was working on, essentially setting its course for machine-learned sociopathy. Once complete, the camera pans outside where we see that same worker leap to his death. At this point, I’m thinking, “So he died in a fit of rage, and his seething spirit is going to possess that same doll giving us not only a tech-will-kill-us-all motif but a critique on labor rights, too? Come through, layered storytelling!”
It was just a random suicide to the set the tone of nothing to come.
Eventually, that time bomb of a doll winds up in the hands of Andy (Gabriel Bateman), a birthday present from his mom, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), who works at the local store selling Kaslan products. A woman came in claiming the doll’s eyes were glowing red and that it was saying inappropriate things. But all Karen heard was that she would be able to get a slightly used doll for nothing because, apparently, Kaslan just destroys malfunctioning units.
Once that doll is connected to all the corresponding devices in the apartment, all hell breaks loose. Andy tries to name his doll Hans Solo (ha), but it somehow hears “Chucky,” so Chucky it is. Since the Buddi doll’s primary function is to be its owner’s BFF (and since all of the child safety locks are no more), Chucky basically starts compiling a hit list of anyone or anything that’s upsetting Andy, namely his temperamental cat and his mom’s douche-y boyfriend, Shane. When the cat scratches Andy’s hand, Chucky tries to choke it to death. When Shane is being Shane, Chucky follows him around playing a recording of Andy calling him an “asshole” behind his back.
It’s all relatively harmless until we get to the scene that should’ve been the film’s thesis but never really goes anywhere.
Andy and his friends are watching the 1974 version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As they’re laughing and joking about all the over-the-top violence and gore, Chucky is in the background taking in his version of what’s happening: blood, guts, and pain equals one happy Andy. Chucky gets a knife from the kitchen and attempts to stab Andy’s friend to appease him. Andy wrestles the knife away just in time and starts plotting how to get rid of Chucky.
It’s the kind of algorithmic misinterpretation that a Black Mirror episode would’ve handled so deftly: technology and algorithms as blank slates we opt in to and fill with our own prejudices, desires, and personal information. Not to mention this would’ve been a prime time to construct a meta plot commenting on violence as entertainment. I fully expected this scene to be the jumping-off point for Chucky to go on a mad killing spree, because that’s what having fun means to him. Or, an even more sinisterly fun idea could’ve been if Andy then realized he had an unassuming killing machine on his hands and purposefully sicced him on his enemies, making Andy the bad guy and Chucky the innocent pawn. This sort of happens when Chucky eventually kills the cat and Shane. But it’s all to make sure that no one stands between him and Andy, despite Andy desperately pleading with him not to harm anyone—a command that oddly goes unheeded from the one person that matters most to Chucky.
As is, Chucky’s kills are deeply unsatisfying. The abysmal climax features Chucky trapping shoppers in a store and unleashing his army of Kaslan dolls and drones to attack. One would think this would make for some entertaining death scenes, but there was only one on-camera direct kill, compared to the original Child’s Play turning in four on-camera kills. The action mainly follows Andy trying to find his mom, who Chucky has somehow managed to kidnap, gag, and hang on a hook in the back of the store.
In the end, Chucky is shot “dead,” Andy and his friends smash him to bits (a clear nod to Office Space’s iconic ode to frustrating tech), and Kaslan assumes zero responsibility for anything (practically, the only thing in the movie that checks out).
Child’s Play completely whiffs on the chance to push the slasher genre into a space that hasn’t really been explored in feature films before. From small details like Andy’s Kaslan hearing aid that you think foreshadows some mischievous tinkering on Chucky’s part, to gaping plot holes like why Andy didn’t file a report about Chucky killing his cat to the company (Chucky literally stands in the corner while Andy is trying to sleep, replaying audio of him strangling his cat), or what happened to Chucky’s first BFF seeing as how he was a returned item (if Chucky is that much of a ride-or-die friend, why didn’t he just allow himself to be returned?).
I give Child’s Play some points for at least attempting a reboot that wasn’t just a shot-for-shot remake. But ultimately the film’s overarching problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants its tension to be. The original was easy: Chucky was a serial killer indiscriminately murdering anyone who got in his way. By trying to root the new version in technology, the blame game gets fuzzy—but in this instance, not in a provocative (or even entertainingly bloody) way.