Thursday, May 28, 2015

They're Not Going Away

Year: 2015
Director: Gil Kenan
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It's a bad sign when a movie betrays its inferiority by the time the opening logos finish. The MGM lion begins his signature roar, but before it finishes the screen flickers and glitches. Just like, oh, every single haunting movie from the years following Paranormal Activity. We're off to a good start.

Could Poltergeist, the remake of the classic 1982 film of the same name, have ever captured the iconic, haphazard looniness of its predecessor? Well, no. That was never gonna happen. But I have my doubts as to whether it had to be laboriously generic, disastrously unfrightening piffle that clings to the original film's every beat while simultaneously using it as a crutch to smooth out its inexplicable profusion of bald patches and limp its way to 90 minutes.

"The original movie just had one hand? Pssh, we can do better than that!" - Some (Probably Drunk) Executive

This Poltergeist revolves around the Bowens, our copy-and-paste-without-attributes middle class family: dad Eric (Sam Rockwell), mom Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt of United States of Tara), teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and youngest daughter Maddy (Kennedi Clements), who isn't blonde so it's totally different and new, I promise. The HD TV inexplicably erupts into static, their complex was built on a cemetery, Maddy is whisked away into the Other Side, madcap paranormal hijinks ensue. Game, set, match.

In the film's most transgressive break from the Reagan-era plotting of the original film, the family is no longer a successful suburban paradigm, rather a victim of the economic turmoil plaguing the new millennium. When Eric is laid off from his successful job at John Deere, the family is forced to move to a new house in a lower income suburban complex, and the bulk of the family's thematic struggles revolve around their efforts to maintain their prior lifestyle and status.

The opening act is all "let's just try to make this work" and "it's not much, but it'll do," as they attempt to still mingle with their bourgeois friends who titter about their bad neighborhood over wine and canapés. This creates an atmosphere which is industriously undermined by the fact that their new house is still basically a palace.

What a hovel. Let's cross the street so we don't have to walk in front of it.

This flippant disregard for the actual realities of the economy is matched only by the film's ignorance of what made the original Poltergeist work: namely, state-of-the-art effects anchored by skilled performances and a sneaking allegory about the dark side of the American dream. The absence of these elements leaves a huge sucking void in the center of the film, especially when the effects sequences come into play.

To be fair, the visuals would have been state-of-the-art had they come out the same weekend as Shrek.  Unfortunately for everyone, the CGI (on the corpses especially) would be embarrassing in a Once Upon a Time episode, let alone a feature film that producers had the audacity to charge money for. It's not like it's not still cheaper to buy real corpses. Just chuck some in there and call it a day, curse be damned. 

I couldn't find a picture of the CGI, so here's a picture of something equally uninteresting.

But moan all I might about some of the more egregious computer-generated insults to the collective intelligence of the human race, there is one central thing Poltergeist 2015 gets wrong above all else: it's not even bad enough to reasonably hate. 

It is only ever a pale scene-by-scene imitation of the original plot slathered liberally with the ripest clichés the modern paranormal genre has to offer: flickering iPhones, inexplicable rabid animals, creepy dolls, and the like, imbued with flop sweat by the most achingly unoriginal score ever committed by a studio orchestra. It is not scary. It is not appealing. But it's blandly competent in the worst kind of way.

For their part, Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Elliot do considerably well endowing their nothing roles with warmth and chemistry, even managing to elevate the unquestionably anemic child actors to something halfway decent to watch. And there are exactly two sequences that approach a feeling similar to horror, like the anticipatory tingle you get in your gut when somebody is reaching out to tickle you.

Why does the doll market continue to thrive? Haven't we learned by now?

There are exactly two modes under which Poltergeist operates at all times, both of which have a trickily incestuous Buster-and-Lucille relationship with the 1982 original.

Mode #1: Do the Same Thing (Only Worse)

Poltergeist is as devoted to Spielberg's script as Madonna is to making sure nobody forgets who Madonna is. Scene after scene drifts by with arbitrary sameness and in those moments where it breaks from the road more traveled, without fail it lurches sickeningly back into place with an overfamiliar monologue or bastardized visual quotation.

Unfortunately, the adaptation is only skin deep, lacking even a scrap of meaning. The film rushes through its key points, blowing its wad way too soon with overexplained metaphysics and overly severe first act disturbances that change the family from curious onlookers to dumbass horror movie fodder. Oh, and the key "they moved the bodies but not the headstones" scene? It's not even discovered, it's just a tossed-off line that we're supposed to take for granted.

It's too fast, too furious, and the dialogue is skin-crawlingly inane. If you ever hear me say "I'm not less scared. But I feel a little braver." in real life, please feel free to spray me with a fire hose.

Mode #2: Change Things (For the Worse)

Obviously nobody can replace the late, great Zelda Rubinstein. But a reality TV huckster in a porkpie hat doesn't capture the appropriate tone whatsoever. It's hard to care about his paranormal antics when you're actively, devoutly wishing that he'll perish. Jared Harris does what he can with the role, but the character devours him with smarmy deficiency.

The other additions are equally inane and fruitlessly "modern." Camera drones! GPS beacons! Words With Friends (an already outdated reference that belies the film's tortured production history)! Poltergeist desperately strains to connect to the modern suburban experience, but the end product is something like this film's depiction of the Other Side (which we've learned from experience is best kept offscreen): a whirling tube of shrill nonentities, howling and reaching for something impenetrably far from their grasp.

It's saying something when we care more about Maddy's stuffed unicorn/pig doll than we actually do about her.

To sum it all up, Poltergeist is a waste of time. It attempts to recapture the burning brilliance of the original film but flies too close to the sun with uninspired contributions from cast and crew alike. It is too similar to the original Poltergeist to be interesting, yet too far from its vastly superior quality to be fun in any way.

And so another remake struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

TL;DR: Poltergeist is blandly generic piffle, bad enough to be annoying but no so much that it's enjoyably atrocious.
Rating: 4/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No. And if the box office pull is anything to go by, you haven't. Good job.
Word Count: 1252
Reviews In This Series
Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Gibson, 1986)
Poltergeist III (Sherman, 1988)
Poltergeist (Kenan, 2015)

1 comment:

  1. Pity all around, but especially to hear about lackluster effects work. Poltergeist's budget-heavy imagery redone with modern gloss and flair seemed like the whole point, or at least only defensible point, of the exercise.

    I'm also long past having been annoyed with the "we live in a crap shack" response to amazing, spacious McMansions that seem to be the only places movie people ever reside in. That house cost ten times my yearly income, and neither of you have a job? What is happening?