On unnecessary backstory, the technological limitations of paranormal telecommunication, and the dubious street-cred of the bad-boy professor
Rings Paramount Pictures
Director: F. Javier Gutierrez
Screenplay: David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel Ring, by Kôji Suzuki
Starring: Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan and Vincent D'Onofrio
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 1.85:1
February 10, 2017
(out of four)
This stupid little girl is still calling land lines.
Here we are at the point in human history when it's easier than ever before to reach people by phone, when those phones follow us everywhere - to dinner, to bed, to the bathroom, to the air - and this kid keeps making her fateful warning calls via antiquated technology. What if she tries the landline and it's not even hooked up? What then? She may use cell phones as a backup, but what if the cell phone in question is on silent? Or what happens if no one answers? Does the fabled seven-day countdown clock simply hold tight until Samara can find another way to get ahold of the right person? Does she just keep calling and calling, assuming they'll finally just get fed up and pick up? Because as my debt collectors well know, one can stave off unwanted phone calls practically indefinitely. If one is so inclined.
These are the questions you've gotta be asking when you're a malevolent spectral force whose business still relies heavily on telecommunication. You don't want to get left behind in this game. Plenty of other ghostly killers out there more than willing to take your place. Her conversion from VHS tapes to .mov files is great and all, but at a certain point she's gotta take the next step. And if you really want to up your numbers, ever heard of YouTube?
Then again, Rings - the unwanted and almost inexplicable resumption of the short-lived franchise - is in a constant uphill battle against technological advancement. It's committed to retaining at least some semblance of its analog roots, yet even as it tries to make what accommodations it can to its present-day setting, it only seems to be losing ground. By bending over backwards to pull its concept even with 2017-level formats and devices, it loses - or at least distracts from - its driving thread. The video around which these movies are built operates like a virus - in a similar way to last month's The Bye Bye Man or 2015's It Follows - with person-to-person transmission; but it's not "viral" in the modern sense. And couldn't be.
The funny thing about this franchise is that it was always just a little out of date, coming along at just the wrong time. The original source novel came out in 1991, when VHS tapes were still the norm - years before DVDs hit the market, and without the modern incarnation of the Internet anywhere in sight. Hideo Nakata's Ringu was released in 1998, when DVDs were still new. Gore Verbinski's English-language remake, The Ring, hit four years later - well into the DVD era, and just a few years shy of YouTube changing everything. The core premise doesn't jive with any of that.
I submit that this is not a flaw; it's a benefit, only one that the Rings creative team - director F. Javier Gutierrez and the writing trio of David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman - is unwilling to accept. The film's attempt to "modernize" is an unnecessary effort, and a counterproductive one. The premise is potentially more fruitful now than it was in 2002 (or 1998, or 1991) precisely because it's anachronistic. In the oversharing, social-media version of the Internet era, the possibility of a rumor - a myth - that's completely inaccessible online is not only potentially fascinating, but arguably the only way to even use this premise at all. If you go all the way and fully modernize the conceit, then the video gets uploaded online and 80 percent of the planet is dead in a week. And then you're suddenly a postapocalyptic franchise.
No. It's gotta be physical media. It's gotta be hard to get. Otherwise there's no room for mystery and no time for fear. It can't be the common cold; it has to be the Ebola virus.
Rings instead does what all the worst horror movies do: it expands, and thus over-literalizes, its premise, and then proceeds to explain and reveal more and more about everything, inundating us with needless background minutiae. Look: Samara is a vengeful ghost who has already been "explained" quite enough. Too much, probably. This is not a backstory that needs to be filled in. This is not a labyrinthine mythology - and if it thinks it is, then it's even more off-track than I thought.
Once again, sexy teenagers are the focus of the story - and by sexy teenagers I mean 26-year-old Matilda Lutz, 26-year-old Alex Roe and 27-year-old Aimee Teegarden - as they get wrapped up in a mystery involving that same video (the girl in the well, the portrait on the wall, the windy cliffside, the empty chair, etc) we first saw 15 years ago. The wrinkle here is that a biology professor, Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki), has devised a way to use the video's existence for his own research, which primarily involves his efforts to prove the existence of a soul beyond physical mortality. Samara's video is just the ticket, and Gabriel has enlisted a whole team of volunteers to participate - all watching the video themselves, making a copy, and passing it along to another person in one neat line that protects everyone involved. (I don't remember how, or maybe the movie never properly explains it.)
College freshman Holt (Roe) got wrapped into the experiment, much to the chagrin of his doting girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz), who drives up to his university to find him and figure out why he's not answering any of her texts. The film initially plays with a hinted-at romantic entanglement between Holt and Skye (Teegarden), but once Julia arrives on campus that angle is quickly discarded (Skye's sights are set much higher - she's shacking up with the prof), and the mystery leads them all (well, not all - one of them is dead by this point - I daren't tell which!) to the town where Samara was buried. It's perhaps telling that, when the film gets to that town, and away from technology, it seems more narratively confident. But this whole section - which constitutes most of the movie's second half - is uniquely terrible for other reasons. Mostly, because it involves new characters and new background details elaborating on Samara's story, which was already plenty uninteresting. The more complex these movies try to be with their stories, the dumber they get.
Gutierrez films with a yellowish-greenish color scheme that seems awkwardly lifted from a David Fincher movie, with all aesthetic impact and existential tension drained from it. (The closing credits are also blatantly inspired by the opening titles of Se7en, like so, so many credit sequences over the last two decades.) He shows no particular instinct for horror - he offers the occasional clanging jump-scare for things like, say, a dog showing up unexpectedly - but the tedious requirements the script gives him offer no real help, either. Rings is exactly the type of movie the studio signed up for; Paramount has no one to blame but themselves. Existing property, a bit of nostalgia, a PG-13 rating, a few TV stars who needed a movie gig.
The professor role is as decisive a miscalculation as any. Holt refers to Gabriel as a badass. Gabriel is surrounded by acolytes more than willing to keep his secrets and do what he asks. He's the bad boy of the biology department. He is played by Johnny Galecki.
Now, I'm not trying to take cheap shots here, nor denouncing him as an actor. But this character was clearly written as cool and rebellious, and what we get is a schlubby loser with no charisma and less personality. How exactly did this guy rope dozens of college kids into putting their lives at risk for his experiment? And to be clear, he's not a schlubby, cool, wise, IDGAF loner like Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs; he's a schlubby loner like your post-collegiate young professional neighbor who only eats microwave dinners and never invites anybody over. It seems like a small thing, but the casting of this role - much more than with the protagonists, which we expect to be interchangeably bland twentysomethings in a movie like this - is the one bit of casting that probably mattered. He's the center of gravity of this whole movie; he's someone who has to exude credibility. Leaving all the film's other flaws in the dust is this: that somehow, the casting department believed someone who's been on The Big Bang Theory for a solid decade has any street cred.