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Dies and dolls – ‘Child’s Play’

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One of the unexpected side effects of Hollywood’s current remake/reboot culture is the reflection of how the world has changed in the time between iterations of a story.

This societal shift is often most clearly reflected in horror movies; perhaps more than any other genre of film, they are of-the-moment representations of the culture at a certain time and place. Seriously – if you want an accurate notion of what sorts of issues, large and small, that are troubling the general public at a given point in time, you could do worse than checking out a horror flick.

You can learn a lot about people by what scares them.

And in the case of the new “Child’s Play,” we get a story that, almost by accident, is able to speak to those current fears in a way that its 1988 predecessor never could have dreamed.

Don’t get me wrong – this latest film has plenty of the ridiculous camp and over-the-top schlock that made its inspiration into a cult classic and basis for a shockingly deep franchise; did you know there were SIX (!) sequels to that film? It’s also surprisingly funny, albeit in a winkingly gruesome way – the filmmakers are gleeful with their distribution of spurting, squirting viscera. And the performances are strong as well, with the stars striking just the right balance of taking the work seriously while also being fully aware of the inherent ridiculousness.

It’s an unexpectedly good movie – one that has its shares of hiccups and bumps, but is a reasonably enjoyable time at the cinema all the same.

Ubiquitous tech company Kaslan Industries has integrated itself into most aspects of everyday life; everything from streaming music to ride-share apps to smart thermostats come from Kaslan. As part of an effort to integrate all of their services (while also maintaining a non-threatening appearance), the company introduces “Buddi,” an AI-powered toy doll that also doubles as an all-in-one control for your Kaslan Industries devices.

But when a disgruntled employee at the assembly factory takes it upon himself to remove all of the safeguards and safety protocols from one of the dolls, things take a turn.

Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman, “Benji”) is a 13-year-old boy living in Chicago with his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza, TV’s “Legion”). Andy struggles to make friends, preferring instead to bury his head in his phone. In an effort to cheer him up, Karen – who works the return counter at the hilariously-named big box store Zed-Mart – brings home a Buddi that a customer has brought back for a refund.

You can probably see where this is going.

It rapidly becomes clear that this doll is not the same as the others. The toy – which Andy names Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) – isn’t bound by the same sorts of rules as the other Buddi dolls. Chucky almost seems self-aware – so much so that Andy decides to keep it a secret … especially when some of Chucky’s behavior starts to turn sinister.

Chicago PD detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”), whose mother lives in Andy’s building, attempts to befriend the lonely boy, but as the body count grows higher and bloodier, so too do the detective’s suspicions.

Things rapidly spirals out of control into a bloody tailspin as Andy is forced to confront the fact that the malfunctioning Chucky will do anything to maintain his perceived status as Andy’s “best friend.” Enemies, friends, family – it doesn’t matter. Nothing will stop him … because they’re friends until the end.

Obviously, the basic conceit of “Child’s Play” is patently ridiculous – a truth that is stressed again and again as we watch Chucky slash and stab his way through the world. But the nature of his evil has changed. It’s not the soul of a dead murderer, but AI gone rogue – scary in a different and somehow more grounded way. Yes, it all feels ridiculous … but it also feels not entirely removed from reality.

Consider this the darkest timeline of the Internet of Things, a world in which our efforts to create technology that helps us instead turn out to be our undoing. While there’s plenty of old-school one-on-one horror killing (there’s one involving a rototiller that is particularly gross and hilarious), there’s also a whole lot of technological chaos that, with a paranoid squint, almost looks possible.

“Child’s Play” has a vintage vibe. Much of the effects work is practical and feels unsettlingly substantial. It is gruesome as hell – there is a LOT of blood – and doesn’t concern itself much with physical possibility. For real – it’s gross. And the film’s sense of humor is very present and more than a little wicked.

Movies like this one make very specific asks of their casts; for them to work, the actors must commit fully to both the horror and the humor. Bateman continues the current trend of solid child actors; he’s really very good, considering how much the movie asks of him. Plaza is clearly having a ball, delighted to be here and really going for it in all the best ways. Henry is also leaning into the tropes and tendencies of all horror movie cops – and it works. Hamill is one of the best voice actors currently working; his Chucky is just awesome. Even the supporting cast – David Lewis as Karen’s jerk boyfriend, Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio as Andy’s friends, Trent Redekop as a creepy maintenance man – is killer; shout-out to Tim Matheson in an extended cameo as the Kaslan CEO.

“Child’s Play” is tonally and aesthetically inconsistent, sometimes losing track of what kind of movie it wants to be. But it’s also a throwback that feels timely, one that taps into 21st century fears while also splattering the walls. It brings together the sensibility of 1980s vintage horror with the Big Brother concerns of today, resulting in something that, while flawed, is undeniably entertaining.

[3 out of 5]

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