If you’re a cool parent who is down with letting their kids see a man’s head get chopped up by a lawn mower, you can’t do better than Child’s Play. A lean thriller that reboots the cult ‘80s horror franchise into the smart home age, Child’s Play is a gruesome slasher that, past all the blood, hides a tender movie about family and a biting satire of American consumerism.
In theaters on June 21, Child’s Play from director Lars Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith is a reboot of the 1988 film franchise created by Don Mancini. (Mancini gets credit in this film’s titles, but has publicly disowned this film. He shepherds his own separate Chucky series at Universal.)
After single mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) gifts her partially deaf son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) a refurbished “Buddi Doll,” one tampered by a suicidal factory worker in Vietnam, a series of murders plagues their neighborhood. When Andy discovers that “Chucky” (voiced by a scary as hell Mark Hamill) is responsible, he must convince the adults, including a stern but warm detective played by Brian Tyree Henry, before it’s too late.
The biggest difference that defines the new Child’s Play from the original, for which the VHS cover alone traumatized a generation, is that Chucky is the center of people’s smart homes. He’s a doll-shaped Alexa, able to connect to your TV, your phone, your lights, even your vacuum cleaner. Thus, he’s deadlier than a mere doll who can grab the kitchen knife, and Klevberg and company wisely play up these features to give Chucky a kind of grounded omnipotence his predecessor never had. It’s a modern metaphor about the old American dream, but there’s something bleak about the fact that your own home can kill you in 2019.
(One gripe I do have is that if Chucky really is sophisticated tech, he’d come in a sleek matte box, like Beats, and not dingy yellow cardboard that the film depicts. It’s an admittedly minor thing I kept thinking about given the film’s emphasis on Chucky’s extremely 2019 superpowers.)
While the original film satirized ‘80s-era Reaganomics, this Chucky is a dark critique on consumer tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, to whom we’ve complacently surrendered our privacy. It’s no mistake Klevberg begins Child’s Play with a “Kaslan Corp” ad that is so uncanny Apple, with Tim Matheson as a CEO (in the same grime he performed his Vice President on The West Wing) who comes off as so inhuman, you’d think he too was automated by algorithms.
When Child’s Play isn’t busy damning capitalism (the film’s climax, set in a shopping mart on the release of the “Buddi 2.0,” is Klevberg yelling at us for our Black Friday habits), the film is a tender exploration of modern American households. Plaza is a revelation as a widowed single mother, the Parks and Recreation’ star’s first time portraying one, and there’s actual chemistry between her and teen actor Gabriel Bateman.
Despite Karen’s shitty boyfriends, there’s so much warmth in their home already that Buddi doll — an innocent gift on Karen’s part — feels disruptive. Which makes it all the more devastating that Karen got the most, shall we say, dysfunctional doll no call to Kaslan Corp. customer support can fix.
These characters have a good story to tell, one that just happens to be wrapped up in a blood-soaked slasher. In 2018, Pew Research found that one-third of all U.S. children live with one parent — exactly the home you see in Child’s Play, which makes it a surprisingly warm film that families could watch together — if it weren’t for all the brutal deaths by razor saws.
A quick word on Mark Hamill and Chucky: Hamill is, to be expected, fantastic. Chucky is nothing like his renowned Joker from Batman, ensuring this performance feels fresh and arresting. While Hamill’s Joker was mischievous, Chucky is more innocent, whose descent into serial killing is driven by a calculated need to make Andy happy. It was not just provocative advertising that the posters for Child’s Play had Chucky murdering off-brand versions of the Toy Story characters. Both stories portray a toy’s desire to be played with, forever. One just takes it to a dark extreme.
Ultimately, the characters in Child’s Play come from two worlds who inhabit one textually rich universe: A world of kids and a world of adults. Both are profoundly tethered to technology; while the adults struggle to figure it out and can be amazed by it (including one who dies by Chucky controlling a self-driving car), the kids “speak tech” naturally. Chucky’s presence is a wedge between the two to the point the adults can’t comprehend a toy could be “alive” with blood on its hands, making their insistence to buy the Buddi 2.0 disturbing. But the kids know better. And there’s just enough juice in this conflict to last the lean 88-minute run time.
It’s funny that Klevberg challenges consumerism with Child’s Play given the original film’s embrace of it. You can buy officially licensed Chucky dolls with two-day shipping on Amazon Prime, with no hint of irony anywhere. And it’s possible that if the new Child’s Play is as big as the original, you’ll buy this Chucky too. Just remember what the film is about when you ask Alexa to put one in your shopping cart.
Child’s Play will be released in theaters on June 21