While the boom of movies and shows based on video games has only hit a fever pitch in the past year or two, the phenomenon of watching other people play video games has been big business for some time now. A 2022 study projected that the video game live-streaming audience would grow to 1 billion viewers this year, a statistic that probably sounds insane to most people born before 1980. Beyond being a surprisingly popular form of passive entertainment, live-streamers and Let’s-Players can have an enormous influence on how the massive gamer market spends their money, whether that means keeping players engaged with live-updating multiplayer games like Fortnite or, in the case of Five Nights at Freddy’s, highlighting obscure indie titles that might otherwise escape their notice.
FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY'S ★ (1/4 stars)
Created in 2014 by a single developer, Scott Cawthon, the first Five Nights at Freddy’s went viral after popular YouTuber Markiplier began streaming his playthroughs, touting it as “the scariest game ever made.” The first of these videos has accumulated over 114 million views since it was published about 9 years ago, spawning a cottage industry of on-air gaming personalities exploring the game’s environment for clues and reacting hyperbolically to its jump scares. Cawthon has produced at least one new Freddy’s game almost every year since, and they’ve been embraced by his audience of video game streamers and their audience of video game streamer-streamers.
In theory, Five Nights at Freddy’s might seem like an ideal candidate for narrative adaptation, given that its fans are already accustomed to watching it be played rather than playing it themselves. Streamers like Markiplier guide audiences through the story, solving the mystery with/for them; watching a fictional character do the same thing shouldn’t dilute the experience much. And yet, in adapting his world for cinema, creator and co-screenwriter Scott Compton doesn’t seem to have bothered to craft a mystery at all. There are plenty of twists, but they play out so matter-of-factly that they yield neither surprise nor suspense. Five Nights at Freddy’s takes a novel, off-the-wall premise and makes it feel rote. Even as someone who has no experience with the games, I felt as if I was on my third or fourth playthrough already.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is an offbeat horror movie set primarily at a defunct Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant where desperate twenty-something Mike (Josh Hutcherson) takes a job as a night watchman. Mike was traumatized as a child by witnessing the abduction of his younger brother, whose kidnapper was never found. Now he spends his nights trying to probe his memory of the event through lucid dreaming. He’s also the sole guardian of his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio), but he may lose custody if he can’t hold down this security guard gig. Mike is confident that he can do this job in his sleep — literally, as he spends his working hours whacked out on sleeping pills so he can continue his subliminal kidnapping investigation — but there’s a complication. At night, the restaurant’s creepy old animatronic entertainers come to life and kill people.
The film’s first big reveal, regarding the nature of the killer robots, is given away in the trailer, so I have no compunction against sharing it here: the seven-foot mechanical band of Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Foxy, and Chica are haunted by the spirits of murdered children. This is the sort of twist that flies against one’s initial expectations about a killer robot movie, which would make it a fun first act twist, but as a newcomer to FNaF, I accepted that this might not qualify as a twist to most of the target audience. However, the longer I watched, the more it felt as if every plot development was being treated this way. There is, for example, a murder mystery element to FNaF, but the film never bothers to give you more than one suspect, so there’s no satisfaction in the killer being revealed. You either guessed correctly, or you didn’t guess. In an adventure game, even if there are no red herrings or extraneous information, you get to amuse yourself by searching for each clue, finding hidden details or secret areas. In cinema, your attention is directed, which makes misdirection an essential ingredient for intrigue.
The script is not the only element of the film that feels like it was warmed up in the microwave. Appropriately given his character’s favorite pastime, Josh Hutcherson’s performance is best described as “sleepy.” The secondary antagonist, Mike’s wicked Aunt Jane who wants custody of Abby for the government assistance check that comes with her, feels cartoonish in a movie that has a killer robot cupcake in it, and the rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. There are jump scares, but no real thrills. There are jokes, but no genuine laughs. Apart from appreciating a few visual nods to The Terminator and one particularly cool match cut during the Night Two massacre, I struggle to conjure any opinion about the film’s look or direction, which is fairly damning in itself.
Perhaps, like so many of this year’s adaptations and requels, Five Nights at Freddy’s was not meant to be watched by people who haven’t, essentially, already seen it. Is the real fun in FNaF poking through it for Easter eggs, or catching references to video game lore with which I’m not acquainted? Would I, in fact, have a better time watching someone else watch this movie than I had watching it myself?
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.