VERDICT: This video-game adaptation never lives up to its premise’s potential as either a scary movie or an exercise in absurdism.
The makers of the film adaptation of the video-game series Five Nights at Freddy’s had two choices: lean into the absurdity of the premise (animatronic characters at a Chuck E. Cheese–style restaurant become sentient murder bots) or use that kiddie-Westworld premise as the springboard for more complicated ideas — about arrested development, perhaps, or the sinister side of nostalgia.
The resultant movie tries for a little bit of everything, and the results are a whole lot of nothing. Freddy’s is rarely frightening — a crowd-friendly PG-13 means fear and carnage are suggested but almost no blood is shown — and it doesn’t have much to say about its underlying subject matter besides, “Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if those musical pizzas robots came to life and had sharp teeth?”
The screenplay from game creator Scott Cawthon, director Emma Tammi (The Wind), and Seth Cuddeback never quite builds any kind of momentum or tension, with exposition peppered in haphazardly throughout and a third-act reveal that is both predictable and nonsensical.
Josh Hutcherson stars as Mike, a man who has spent his life traumatized by a childhood incident: he witnessed his younger brother’s abduction. He spends his fitful nights of sleep dreaming of that moment over and over again, trying to latch onto some heretofore obscured detail that will allow him to figure out the identity of the kidnapper. As such, he’s a bundle of nerves and finds it difficult to hold down a job.
Mike’s also the guardian of his much younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio, Netflix’s Unstable), who spends her days drawing and talking to imaginary friends. (At one point, Mike mentions that his brother’s abduction was as traumatic to his parents as it was to him, so why they decided to have another child who’s at least 15 years younger than Mike is never explained.) Mike’s devious Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) wants custody of Abby in order to collect the monthly government check, so Mike has to find a job that he can keep.
Desperate, he accepts a gig as the night watchman at the long-closed Freddy Fazbear’s, a pizza emporium and arcade that’s been closed since the 1980s, when several kids went missing. He learns about the place’s creepy backstory from local cop Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail, Mack & Rita), who seems to know more than she initially lets on. Did the Freddy Fazbear robot and his pals eliminate the previous night’s watchmen? And why are the missing kids suddenly turning up in Mike’s dreams? By the time the answers arrive, many audience members will have ceased to care.
Is this a story about cuddly creatures turned homicidal or about guilt, trauma, and sinister child ghosts? The film can’t decide, so it meanders. Any potential that Five Nights at Freddy’s had to provide either chills or laughs is squandered; it takes Mike an unusual amount of screen time to get that job and for the rest of the pieces of the plot to come into play. As tedium sets in, viewers may find it difficult not to tick down the titular five nights on their fingers in the hopes of getting closer to the movie’s end.
Hutcherson and Lail, to their credit, do their best to take the proceedings seriously, and young Rubio avoids any precociousness or cute kid playing to the camera. It’s the veterans who are most ill-used here: Masterson is reduced to a two-dimensional villain, while Matthew Lillard is directed to play to the rafters as the employment counselor who lines up the Freddy Fazbear’s gig for Mike.
Also deserving of praise are set decorator Claire Sanchez, art director Mark A. Terry, and production designer Marc Fisichella: Freddy Fazbear’s is every inch the old-school kiddie wonderland, from the flashing lights of the arcade to the shooting-stars–bedecked carpeting.
Fans of the games will delight in the film’s Easter eggs, apparently; the preview audience let out cheers and applause for seemingly mundane moments that are apparent shout-outs to the source material. Those not initiated into this world would be better off grabbing a pizza.