It movie review: a series of unfortunate events

It red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The Goonies, Stand by Me, and Poltergeist went into a blender with a pinch of E.T. and John Hughes to smush into a mess of retro 80s mush.
I’m “biast” (pro): big Stephen King fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh my god, you guys, this is amazing! Did you know that Chris Columbus made an It movie in the 1980s? How did they keep it secret? How did it never get released? It’s minor 80s, not anything that would have made a huge splash, but still: someone dug it up and now it’s on our big screens! I hope they do a faux VHS cover for the home release… or maybe even a VHS itself. (They could get whoever designed the Stranger Things logo to do it!) That would be so cool.

Wait, what? This isn’t a found object from the 80s? It was actually produced now?

Wait, what? This It isn’t a found object from the 80s? It was actually produced now? How… how is that possible? It’s too straightforwardly 80s to even be a pastiche. It has no sense that any time has passed in filmmaking, never mind in society at large. It’s like someone threw The Goonies and Stand by Me and The Lost Boys and Poltergeist in a blender with a smidge of E.T. and a pinch of John Hughes to make an 80s smoothie. Surely this is a movie intended to capitalize on the popularity of those movies. On the surprisingness of them. When they were new. Not to smush a mess of old-hat 80ness into a ball of retro mush, all the flavors running together till you’re not even sure if you’re actually watching one of those old movies.

“Guys, I thought this was the Stranger Things audition...”
“Guys, I thought this was the Stranger Things audition…”

Maybe this It works if you’re looking for a hit of nostalgia. I was not. I have not seen the 1990 TV miniseries, nor have I read the 1986 Stephen King novel this is based upon. (I am a huge fan of King’s work and have read lots of his books, but this one passed me by.) So I wasn’t looking to recapture anything from the past. As ever when I see a movie adaptation of a book, or a remake or a reboot of some previous filmed version, I am hoping to see a movie that feels like there was a reason for its story to be retold onscreen now. How does a story created decades ago remain relevant to us today? Why have the storytellers gathered us all here at this very moment?

I don’t see that screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman (the latter of the depressingly dull Annabelle movies) or director Andy Muschietti have found good answers to those questions. Clearly they understood the need to update King just a bit: the two-part plot of his book takes place in the 1950s and the 1980s, and this movie, covering the first half of the story, takes place in the 80s — late 1988 through the summer of 1989 — which means the already planned second movie, tentatively scheduled for a 2019 release, will be set today. Which seems like a reasonable thing to do.

🎶 Good enough for you is good enough for me... 🎶
🎶 Good enough for you is good enough for me… 🎶

But merely shifting dates around is not enough. This 2010s-created 1980s-set tale is chock full of hoary clichés that instantly backdate this movie in a way that makes it seem like we’ve seen it all before… 30 years ago. Really, an all-boy gang of pals with The Leader (Jaeden Lieberher: Midnight Special, Aloha) and The Funny One (Finn Wolfhard) and The Scaredy One (Jack Dylan Grazer) and The Fat Kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip) and The Black Kid (Chosen Jacobs) and The Jewish Kid (Wyatt Oleff: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)… And then The Girl (Sophia Lillis)! A Cool Girl, of course, who becomes one of the guys, yet also someone for all the guys to worship and adore and later rescue just when coming to her aid will bring a now-fractured bunch back together again? Seriously? Surely there was a way to adapt King’s characters in ways that didn’t render them as stereotypes, and their adventures and friendships as rickety rolling stock rattling over well-worn rails. Surely there was.

Boiling an enormous novel down means a lot gets left out. Maybe this wasn’t screaming to be a movie.

Boiling an enormous novel down to even two movies means a lot has to get left out. (Though, you know, maybe this wasn’t screaming to be a movie, or even two.) As a fan of King’s work, I have no doubt that his 1,000-page-plus novel fleshes out these kids and their fears in ways that are riveting. We need to know who they are, what scares them, and why — we need to feel it in our bones the way that they do — if the mysterious supernatural entity that is terrorizing them is going to resonate with the viewer. And that never happens here. We barely get to know these kids… and so for its full first hour, It is just random creepy visions menacing a bunch of junior-high-schoolers on their summer vacation, a familiar collection standard funhouse boos: a scary basement, a rundown haunted house, clown dolls, zombies, and so on. This evil entity — which often takes the shape of the sinister clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård: Atomic Blonde, Allegiant) — supposedly is attuned to the fears of children and can morph itself to inspire maximum fright, but his threat never feels anything other than purely physical.

I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?
I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?

Not much that happens builds on anything else: there’s no sense of momentum to It. It’s just a series of unfortunate events in the small town of Derry, Maine — one of King’s fictional locales — that are arbitrary and unconnected. There is no atmosphere of creeping danger even though children keep disappearing: the kids themselves comment on how none of the adults really seem to notice. There’s no atmosphere of any kind, in fact, no ambiance. This town should feel under siege, and instead of something ominous in the lack of that, it merely comes across as a lazy oversight on the film’s part. Everything is disjointed: at one point someone unexpected gets targeted by the evil entity and it seems like this bit of plot was imported from another movie. A psychologically incisive version of this story might make us understand that ordinary teenaged bullies and mundane abusive parents — as some of the kids are coping with — and hellspawn demons (or whatever the heck Pennywise is supposed to be; it’s not explored) are on the same spectrum of horrors for young people, metaphors for adolescence and confronting the adult world. Instead they’re merely a hodgepodge of stray unbranded nightmares.

It is yet another painful example of a filmmaker from beyond Hollywood whose good work outside the studio system got him noticed… and then everything that made his work interesting got watered down so much that you wonder why Hollywood even bothered snatching him up. Muschietti’s previous film was the English-language Spanish horror Mama, a simple, elegant, sad movie about parental love and monsters under the bed. And now his It is little more than a generic banality.

see also:
It: Chapter Two movie review: it doesn’t float

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