Passable but unnecessary 'Poltergeist' remake will come and go quickly, and be deservedly forgotten
Poltergeist 20th Century Fox
Director: Gil Kenan
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire, based on a 1982 screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kyle Catlett, Kennedi Clements, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris and Jane Adams
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 33 minutes
May 22, 2015
(out of four)
The new Poltergeist is not a disaster, but it is sort of a worst-case scenario: a remake that only reaffirms it never needed to be made in the first place. A waste of good actors and good technicians on an irrelevant movie.
I would have thought that, with director Gil Kenan - who showed such finely tuned Spielbergian instincts in his first (and, incidentally, similarly themed) movie, 2006's Monster House - at the helm, this would at least have achieved the status of imaginative (if somewhat superfluous) homage to the original. Instead, he's given us a watchable but bland reiteration - leaner but somehow less disciplined, modernized but almost instantly obsolete.
Allow me, if you will, to once again beat the drum for reinvention. If anyone - Kenan, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire or 20th Century Fox itself - had had the inclination to completely reimagine the story based on the same basic idea, the film could have given itself a chance to stand apart. Instead, the powers that be played it safe, positioning their Poltergeist as a "faithful update" that stands right alongside the original. It might as well have been intended as an inferior substitute, for all the effort made to distinguish itself.
The general setup remains the same - husband and wife Eric and Amy, with their three kids, Sullen Teenage Daughter (Saxon Sharbino), Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and most importantly Madison (Kennedi Clements). But the updates the filmmakers made seem more like cursory attempts to modernize rather than any real effort to redefine the material or put their own stamp on it. Instead of a lived-in house, it's a brand new house (which inadvertently puts this version into more stale haunted-house territory). Instead of the dad working for the development company on whose desecrated land the story takes place, this dad is recently unemployed (removing his proximity to the background ethical transgression and exculpating him from any guilt). Instead of the Freeling family, it's the Bowen family. Instead of a mysterious and eccentric medium introduced to help save the family's youngest daughter, it's the host of a ghost-hunting reality TV show named Carrigan Burke, introduced at the beginning of the movie to set up the second-half payoff. Oh, and I suppose in an effort to flesh out the character, the script provides a romantic history between Burke (Jared Harris) and Dr. Powell (Jane Adams), the parapsychologist the family initially consults after their daughter's "disappearance."
The changes to the narrative don't revamp anything, they don't subvert any of our expectations; they're just obligatory tweaks to a movie that functions almost exactly the same as its predecessor. Except with less visual inventiveness, cheaper scares, and less build-up of both the suspense and the vital emotional attachments that make up the core of the script (and, at least in the 1982 film, give the characters' actions during the entirety of the supernatural event very specific meaning).
But the remake does, at least, have the benefit of a director who knows what he's doing (even if there's a disappointingly mechanical detachment to his filmmaking here) and a well-selected cast. Sam Rockwell is one of those actors with the uncanny ability to, without exception, enliven even the dullest material. Rosemarie Dewitt is one of American cinema's most chronically under-utilized actors, and unfortunately she gets the short end once again in Poltergeist. Her character's importance to the plot has been drastically reduced from JoBeth Williams' great original role, for reasons I can explain but not understand.
The one area where the new film improves is that it directly involves the teen daughter, Kendra, into the peril of the story. (The 1982 version never totally figured out what to do with her.) Kenan gives us a handful of nifty sequences and memorable images, but he, like the rest of the film, feels likes he's on autopilot more often than not. I hope, in the coming years, we get to see more of the energetic and innovative filmmaker we saw in Monster House, and less of the studio hired hand.
The original Poltergeist, officially directed by Tobe Hooper, sprung from the imagination of Steven Spielberg and felt, and still feels, very much of its time and place. This new Poltergeist doesn't feel like it's of any time, or any place. It's a movie that will drift ambivalently into memory.