Poltergeist (2015) ** (out of 5)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by: Gil Kenan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, re-tellings. It’s what Hollywood does today. I’ve become comfortably numb to the idea, for it appears that if I protested them all, I wouldn’t actually see much at the theater, now would I? I only ask that the project follow my super fair guidelines. For starters, remake or reboot something that makes sense, or provides an improvement on a mediocre or poor original. Then, at least update the idea to reflect the current times, if applicable. Finally, capture something special, or at least something that distances your film from what came before. Otherwise, isn’t the whole exercise silly? Wouldn’t it be simply treading water? Keeping those guidelines in mind, you might guess that I had an aversion to the updated, seemingly forever-in-utero Poltergeist. You’d be right. Originally announced about a decade ago, the idea of this project has long bothered me, as it violated the first of my super fair guidelines- how could one improve, or even make relevant, a new version?
Director Gil Kenan’s (Monster House, City of Ember) film is neither satisfying, nor relevant enough to even enter the ring with the original’s classic status. It wouldn’t be prudent to critique this film solely as a companion piece to Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, though. On its’ own merits (or lack thereof), I can’t recommend this version. To be fair, it isn’t near the wretched hive of scum and villainy I imagined it would be. It simply does not fill a void, serve a need, or matter in any way, shape, or form. This Poltergeist does not offer a sublime undercurrent of building tension or a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score, and it doesn’t pray upon our fears as former children or current parents like it should. Instead, it has just enough boo moments and frightening imagery to rub shoulders with the thousand other mediocre horror films of modern times. As it is just interesting enough to not be a disaster, I suppose we should deliver Kenan, Sam Raimi and crew a hearty back slap, an ‘atta boy’ for making money off our penchant for nostalgia, and a shiny blue participation ribbon.
We’re familiar with the bulk of the film’s plot, but a few things have changed. In this version, both parents (Rockwell & DeWitt) are jobless as we meet them, and thus they need to ‘downsize’. Well, they’ve ‘downsized’ to a nice, cozy suburban home with four bedrooms. Now that’s the type of unemployment situation we could all get used to, right? Their teenage daughter Kendra (Sharbino) is spoiled and upset about life in general (oh those teens!), their son (Catlett) is afraid of most everything, and the baby of the family, Madison (Clements) is just about as adorable and precocious as you can imagine. The script provides this topical unemployment angle, which could lead to an unease that would lend a nice dollop of tension to the film, and provide a timely parallel to the original’s capitalists-be-damned angle, but Kenan doesn’t spend much time on it, and as a result, it becomes perfunctory.
For that matter, this film doesn’t have the time for such trivial elements as character development. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time of ninety minutes, Poltergeist is bewilderingly rushed. By the time young Madison has been snatched from the earthly plane by supernatural forces, we barely knew her, what she feared, or how close she was to the rest of her family. Coupled with our existing knowledge of her 1982 doppelgänger Carol Anne, how can we possibly care the requisite amount when she’s gone? How can we care about any of these characters enough to be concerned about their fates? For whatever reason (perhaps an expectation of shorter audience attention spans), the film makes an unnecessary push for the finish line that lays waste to possible character moments, the same base elements that made the original so endearing. Any fan of horror flicks, even relative amateurs such as myself, knows that most successful horror films tempt the audience with tension until a series of climactic scares are unleashed upon our frail psyches. Poltergeist plays like a pair of clumsy first-time lovers, prematurely ‘matriculating’ to the climax.
Something can be said about the film’s one strong point, however. Whereas the original relied on our blind faith in the invisible other-worldly plane, this update breaks that wall, literally and figuratively. The visuals ‘behind’ the world of Madison’s closet are ghoulish and effective, invoking an organic/mechanic mix reminiscent of H.R. Giger, laced with electric impulses. This version renders electricity like a tangible beast, insinuating a scientific origin for the afterlife. I’m pleased that a horror film actually used science to perhaps detail why a dead spirit might travel from place to place. It doesn’t explain everything, but it’s a good start.
Poor Gil Kenan had an unenviable task when he set forth to make this unnecessary film. Even with professional actors like Rockwell and DeWitt, the task of besting a masterpiece was never something he could realistically accomplish. That said, how seriously can I critique a film that simply lacks a valid excuse to exist? With the exception of a newfangled view of the ‘other side’, this Poltergeist offers nothing but a way to call on our sentiment for the original. If, like the original did, the story saw this as a family drama first, wrapped around the heart of a horror film, I sense that it might have worked. If it had been the first to make our irrational childhood fears come to life, it might have worked. Like most remakes, reboots, re-envisionings, and re-tellings, however, this update just cannot graduate past the starting line of, you know, needing a reason for being.
“RoboCop” (2014) ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earl Haley, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and Samuel L. Jackson
Written by: Joshua Zetumer, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by: Jose Padilha
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
The original “RoboCop”, while revered by many, was a dreadful chore to watch. It’s an overindulging film that thinks it’s saying something about the world we’re in, but is too dumb to know better. The message, if there was any, was lost soon after the first limb was shredded. Director Paul Verhoeven has often believed with his films that he’s ahead of the curve- I can’t deny that his films have been innovative, and even groundbreaking at times, but always for silly reasons. The first “RoboCop” had unprecedented and copious amounts of violence, “Total Recall” left us with a new ‘mammary arrangement’ as the most memorable scene, and “Basic Instinct” wore out multiple VCRs as a result of one leg-crossing moment. Verhoeven’s “cynicism as satire” angle never quite hit, and his “RoboCop” fails as a result. This isn’t a review of the 1987 version, however- Jose Padilha’s remake is a sleeker, smarter, and overall better film than the predecessor, hitting the marks that the original missed.
Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing”) is well-cast as Alex Murphy, an undercover detective for the Detroit PD who’s hot on the trail of Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow), a known drug lord. Conveniently, Murphy “gets too close” and becomes a target. Vallon and two corrupt officers then plot to eliminate Alex by planting a ‘device’ in his car- right in front of his home. It’s a devious action- for it clearly could have taken out his wife and child (although it does neither, nor does it seen to damage the house).
Alex is not so lucky- with burns all over his body and amputated limbs, he has no quality of life. Luckily for him, OmniCorp founder Raymond Sellers (Keaton- remember him?) wants to ‘help’. They’ve been looking to win over public opinion to put their robots in harm’s way and not people. Of course, public opinion contends that because robots don’t have emotion, they can’t operate with the difficult discernment required of soldiers and/or cops. This means they need Alex. With his wife’s (Cornish) reluctant permission, Sellers and Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman, in another film-grounding performance) advance the company’s cybernetics technology to merge Alex’s conscience with a robot suit, thus making him the world’s first ‘cyborg’.
What could have turned out silly (like the original) is actually given some resonance with this new film. Although we aren’t given much screen time with Alex and his family pre-explosion, I loved that the filmmakers decided to flesh out the scenes introducing him as RoboCop. We get glimpses of blood-cleansing and cranial-computer chip fusion that are both difficult to watch but also plausible. Padilha wisely allows these first scenes upon Alex’s re-awakening to ‘walk’ a bit, and it gives the entire process a depth we don’t expect from this ‘type’ of film. It encourages us to explore this whole concept and ask interesting questions, which is what good science-fiction should do.
What questions are these, you ask? For beginners, Clara’s decision is a would-be first; millions upon millions have had to make end-of-life decisions for their spouses, but she’s the first one that has to consider allowing her spouse to become something else- a cyborg. Could we accept our loved ones in a state like RoboCop Alex? Is it really enough just to have someone exist, or do you need all of them, including their personality, to love them? Also, where would the society in “RoboCop” draw the line? Like all technologies, it would likely become more accessible to people, including in the home. Could a dying Fido last longer in a ‘RoboDog’ apparatus? Should Fido last longer?
Intentionally or not, “RoboCop” explored the willingness of our brains to accept outside, or ‘robotic’ influences. Alex is ‘controlled’ by OmniCorp, but his brain spends plenty of time trying to override the programming. Is it possible that the electrical and chemical activity in our wildly complex brains would be able to accept another system, or would it continue to stay its’ staunchly autonomic self?
On top of that, Samuel L. Jackson’s fanatic talk-show host of a character throws out words like ‘pacify’ and ‘safe’. These catchy, focus-group tested words, used to encourage viewers, support Sellers and OmniCorp’s push to remove government restrictions. Jackson’s portrayal may remind you of the various talking head blowhards on TV now. These personalities are not interested in journalism; instead they push a veiled, business-oriented agenda, which shines through in the character’s final screen moments.
Do you see what I mean? “RoboCop” is supposed to be a dumb remake of a dumb movie, right? We should never expect to take ideas from this, or think about it at all more than five minutes after the credits roll, right? I suspect the difference this time around involved bright, creative people like Padilha and the writer (writers?) seeing something deeper within the framework of the original film, then deciding to extrapolate. The result is a surprisingly thoughtful, smart, and almost prescient science-fiction movie- not at all a dumb action film. It’s the type of film that should be remade- the original is bad, and they made it better. If only all remakes cared to be so thoughtful.