Friday, February 3, 2017

Samara's Revenge: "Rings" doomed by no scares and needless exposition

Rings (2017) 
102 min., rated PG-13.

Fifteen years ago, 2002’s “The Ring”—itself an American remake of 1998 Japanese horror film “Ringu”—introduced audiences to a VHS tape that kills you in seven days after you watch it, unless you make a copy and show it to someone else. That film still holds up creepily well with 2017 eyes, which is a lot more than what can be said for its repeatedly postponed sequel-cum-reboot. The title is now “Rings” and, sadly, it’s just another unnecessary trip to the well. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez and written by David Loucka (2012’s “House at the End of the Street”), Jacob Estes (2004’s “Mean Creek”) and Akiva Goldsman (2016’s “The 5th Wave”), this threadbare copy for a new generation approaches a few fresh avenues to further explore the lore of wraithlike little girl Samara Morgan. Unfortunately—and perhaps at the hands of the shots-calling studio—it is doomed by lame plotting, sloppy writing, and predictable, inexcusably weak scare tactics. Never ever rising to the nervy heights of any “Ring” incarnation (that includes 2005’s occasionally startling “The Ring Two”), “Rings” won’t kill you, but you will definitely forget it ever existed in a week’s time. And, with a show of hands, how many of us were actually clamoring to learn more about Samara?

An opener set on an airplane en route to Seattle is promising, until it becomes a ridiculous throwaway and completely senseless, albeit only if you stop and give it more thought than the filmmakers did. What, the film’s first victim, Carter (Zach Roerig), thought he would be safe in the air from Samara (contortionist Bonnie Morgan) and just take a whole flight down with him? Two years later after the plane crash, the film introduces Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki), a college biology professor who finds the fated plane passenger’s old VCR, along with the lethal tape, at a flea market. After watching the video, he uses his students as guinea pigs for a scientific experiment to prove the existence of souls and an afterlife. And then there are high school sweethearts, Julia (Matilda Lutz) and Holt (Alex Roe), who begin a long-distance relationship as Holt goes off to college. Weeks later when Holt stops answering his girlfriend’s calls and text messages, Julia drives to find him, later discovering Gabriel’s ring of students and that Holt has watched the video. Julia then commits an act of self-sacrifice, deciding to make a digital copy of the video and watch it for herself, canceling out Holt. Already on day one, Julia is marked on her hand, expediting her expiration date and realizing her video copy has a new collection of images. As Julia and Holt hole up in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town to piece together the mystery of Samara’s childhood, can Julia bypass her death sentence before those seven days are up?

Early on, “Rings” sets in motion a notably intriguing development—a professor using his students for research by forming a cult of those who have watched the tape and pass on Samara’s curse like a chain letter—and then ditches that nugget of promise for the same-old, same-old. In exchange, the film treats the viewer to monotonous Nancy Drew sleuthing in old church basements at night to needlessly flesh out Samara’s backstory. Whether it was a result of any studio interference or not, the final cut is a non-starter of muddled ideas and does not seem to be the one vision director F. Javier Gutiérrez originally had in mind. While the 2002 original refused to spoon-feed its mystery too much—the videotape was smartly left as a plot device and how it materialized was better left unexplained—“Rings” shoves so much exposition down our throats. At the same time, so many questions are left unanswered by the end, and even within the context of a supernatural horror story, any shot at ambiguity lacks enough care and internal logic to be considered an artistic choice. The stakes are negligible. There’s no urgency in how much time Julia has left to pass the curse on to someone else and continue the cycle. The mystery ultimately leads nowhere of note or surprise and actually ends up forcing one to compare it to last year’s “Don’t Breathe,” an ace example of how to get an audience rattled.

If “The Ring” had a solid emotional center with Naomi Watts, this one has Italian model Matilda Lutz. She’s a pretty face and might be a competent actress with better material, but her Julia is mostly a blank slate. Lutz’s Julia and Alex Roe’s Holt are both dully drawn—they’re a good-looking young couple in love, and though Julia lives at home because her mother “needs her,” her mother never contacts her once she’s on the road for days—and used merely as thinly shaded, freshly scrubbed horror-movie cogs on Samara’s wheel of death. Aimee Teegarden brings more weight to her one intense scene as desperate but doomed art grad student Skye, while Johnny Galecki’s self-serving Gabriel could have afforded more layers and the thanklessly cast Vincent D’Onofrio is put in charge of expository duties as blind cemetery caretaker Burke.

The coda, which visualizes the world’s longest “hair ball” and would be more unsettling and gnarly had the trailers not given it away, inevitably sets up a continuation of Samara’s incurable curse, but what goes down at the end should have been the starting point for all of "Rings." Director F. Javier Gutiérrez also scrounges up one or two moments of effectively moody imagery—as it rains upward outside, a whole window pane flickers to resemble a black-and-white image from the tape—but that is all. Even as an empty parade of would-be frights (and hordes of buzzing CGI hell flies), this moneyed sequel leaves one seriously wanting. Samara (who has inscrutably grown taller since we last saw her) isn’t even much of a menacing presence anymore, and that goes for when she does finally emerge from a TV set and eventually, yes, a cell phone. With as many lives as a cat, the death-bringing Samara is better off crawling back into that well of hers and never coming out again, unless it’s in the service of a more skillfully shuddersome outing. Feeling like a copy of a copy, “Rings” is only vaguely less boring than watching a powered-off TV screen.

Grade: C - 

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