Film adaptations of video games are almost as old as the consoles themselves, though none had ever been as successful as 2023’s megahit The Super Mario Bros Movie. A lesser known but still extremely popular video game, Five Nights at Freddy’s, is next to get the film treatment, courtesy of Universal and Blumhouse, but fans should stick to the controller and far from its feckless adaptation. All others should similarly stay away from the flickering, uninviting lights of a film, whose plot overlay is both too ludicrous and too underutilized to make for a compelling case, logical or otherwise.
The video game typically features a security guard trying to escape menacing animatronic robots during a nightshift in a spooky, abandoned restaurant reminiscent of the old ShowBiz Pizza from the 1980s, similar to the Chuck E. Cheese of today. The film maintains that principle structure, but to give the film supposed purpose, make the security guard, Mike, the holder of the key plotlines around which the story will revolve.
Josh Hutcherson plays the forlorn Mike, a “head case” who has trouble sleeping and a troubled past. His theories about dreams soon reveal that he is trying to examine an old childhood memory of his little brother’s abduction. Unable to keep a job because of his inexplicable and illogical insubordination and violent tendencies, Mike is soon directed to the guard gig by creepy career counselor, Steve—played by a devilishly playful Matthew Lillard, the film’s only saving grace.
Mike must also care for his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio) and soon befriends police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), who shows up during Mike’s second night at Freddy’s Pizza to warn him about strange occurrences in the abandoned family center. Soon enough, the rusty and dust gathering animatronic animals seemingly suffused to the old stages give eerie signs of life.
The ghoul-like animals are, for sure, disturbing on the surface. They are larger than human life, and have dead open eyes that glimmer and shine in the dark. Without question, those similar robots from the 1980s pizza joints are, in retrospect, quite scary.
Five Nights at Freddy’s, which would’ve worked best as a parody, hints at but ultimately never explores what could have been a novel theme—while most films today fall for the trite trick of displaying anxiety over new technologies like A.I., the really scary stuff are those inexplicably grotesque, rudimentary machines from our childhood. But screenwriter (and creator of the video game) Scott Cawthon and Director Emma Tammi are not interested in any of this. This is mostly filler studio fare, and nothing else.
Instead of exploring what could have been interesting themes about obsolete technology, Five Nights at Freddy’s simply goes through superficial horror motions. Because the plot is too much about the “mystery” of Mike’s brother’s abduction, there’s no one to sacrifice in the traditional slasher sense. Enter three hapless burglars who want to vandalize the pizza place for no logical reason to play that role, in the scenes only real, climatic horror sequence.
Even then, though, the picture just paints into the squares by predetermined numbers and colors. The soundtrack pitches high. The camera cuts from the front to the back of the victim’s perspective, with the ghostly creature coming no later than the third or fourth cut. The slash or stab occurs, and the body is mutilated. Its so procedural and formulaic and lacking any punch whatsoeever, that one wonders if it was, in fact, A.I. that conceived of such lackluster moments.
Things do not get better when we return to Matt and his unsettling nightmares. They are so real that injuries that occur to him there manifest in real life, Friday the 13th style. Paranormal explanations intermix unnecessarily with real life ones, ultimately leaving neither the real nor the fictional world fully satisfied.
By the end of the runtime, you will be laughing at, not with the movie. There was so much there for an interesting film, even if it was just a silly, over the top one. Instead, the filmmakers insist on a purportedly serious fantastical story behind the moving robots and the miserable security guard’s motivations and fate. The end-result is Game Over for the charmlessly formulaic movie—a muddled, messy set of parts that resemble the creaky, decaying robots themselves.
Five Nights at Freddy’s will be released in theaters and on Peacock on October 27, 2023.