Brian Tyree Henry
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Child's Play July 19, 2019
n Child’s Play (1988), a question lingered. Is the doll Andy’s mom just got him for his birthday alive? The twist was that the doll, a grinning carrot top from Hell named Chucky, not only was alive but was alive because a serial killer inserted his soul, through black magic, into the plaything’s body just before dying in a shootout in a toy store. (Really!) In the Child’s Play remake, which came out at the end of June, the grand subversion is that the
doll is actually supposed to be alive. Another twist is that, this time around, the figurine is a robot gone bad rather than a coincidentally supernatural being. These are also the things make the reboot much less fun, worthwhile.
In the new film's version of 2019, people do not have Google Homes voiced by Alexa or even Roombas. Most, instead, have personal robots. Most typically, they look just like the doll from 1988's Child’s Play. People call them Buddi, not Chucky. They sound like benevolent Pixar characters rather than baby-talking cartoons. Buddis can scan your face and watch your every move. What makes the Buddi brand extra special — and inexplicably popular — is that while these little impish assistants are produced en masse, none are alike once they’ve settled into the home of a buyer.
Whereas the villain in the original Child’s Play merely liked killing, and then got extra bloodthirsty when it realized that it needed to insert itself into a human vessel to continue living, the fiend in the new Child’s Play lives to serve and make friends first. It doesn't sour until later on. Voiced by a terrific Mark Hamill, it wants to hang out with the adults. With kids, it wants to play. “Are we having fun yet?” the doll, who renames itself Chucky shortly after its unboxing, obsessively asks, its eyes sad and puppy-round.
Chucky eventually turns evil because of a technical malfunction. The kid being victimized this time around is not a cutesy 6-year-old who proves himself unexpectedly scrappy by act three but a gangly middle-schooler named Andy (Gabriel Bateman). He, like his predecessor, lives with a single mom who works in a department store (Aubrey Plaza). But this time the mom’s a tad more out-of-the-loop and comes with a sardonic edge thanks to her being played by someone as deadpan-funny as Plaza.
Comparing the first iteration of a horror movie with its reboot generally should be avoided critically, especially when, like in this film’s case, the narratives so drastically diverge. But comparison can’t be helped for a couple of reasons. One comes from the arguable truth that the first Child’s Play, which was followed by a sextet of sequels (all of which I haven’t seen, only a few of which I'd actually like to see) and plenty of supplemental material, didn’t need to be re-chopped and screwed for a new generation. It still incites cheeky thrills and gruesome laughs as is. I watched it for the first time the other day, and was surprised by how much it had held up. It found an unusually sharp balance between loony comedy and monster-under-the-bed terror. The other comes from the reality that the repurposed storyline never gels as well as the unexpectedly persuasive original's did, foremostly thanks to a difficult time convincing us that anyone in their right mind would ever buy a Buddi doll. (Even other models — one of which has blond hair, the other being a variation of the teddy bear that looks more like a starved furry than anything — are horrible to look at and be around, so what gives?)
This Child’s Play feels like a particularly reductive episode of Black Mirror (2011-present). Makes sense. The killer-doll conceit, though first seeing some popularity through a segment featured in the underrated anthology film Dead of Night (1945), rose to prominence via Black Mirror’s closest ancestor, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), with the episode “Living Doll,” which aired in 1963. The first Child’s Play was reminiscent of the latter episode not just because something as harmless as a kid’s toy suddenly became a hazard but also because it so effectively rode high on two universally frightening things. There was the idea that even the most attentive of a parent cannot protect their offspring as well as they think they can. In this case, even leaving one alone with a plaything is dangerous. There was also the undeniable creepiness of how this particular child victim was losing their innocence.
The premise hasn’t lost any of its vigor in the intervening years. It doesn’t need to be revamped: the novelty of the 1988 movie has stuck. It’s this new version, which speaks doltishly of how we should be anxious about increasing technological ubiquity, that will appear dated years from now.
Watching the movie, I kept thinking about Sophia, a robot introduced to the public in 2016. Designed to cogently interact with humans, almost like a chat bot with a fleshy facsimile, Sophia was meant to dazzle. More often, though, has she been met with bemusement, mockery. A little after debuting, she was the subject of so many memes that it seemed, on my Twitter timeline, that the population became briefly incapable of joking about anything else.
Even when it’s become possible for humans to interact with robots in the way they did in sci-fi novels aplenty and in TV shows like The Jetsons (1962-1963), tools like Sophia, Buddi, 2019 Chucky, will likely never be in vogue, especially not in horror movies. They inspire ridicule, not fear or even, if to consider darkly comic possibilities, humor. The Siris, the Alexas, the HAL 9000s of the world are the freakiest. They’re so omniscient, so subtle, that we forget to think about them outside of when we’re asking them to look up a certain song for us or tell us the weather. One of them turning suddenly bloodthirsty would be frightening if to be dramatized. The new Child’s Play distorts many of the things that made its source material scary. But the biggest perversion of all lies in how unnecessarily it alters the basic appeal of the villain itself. You don’t pay to see a movie about a killer doll and walk out happy having just spent 90 minutes with a killer robot. C-