Written by: David Loucka, Jacob Estes, Akiva Goldsman, Jacob Estes & David Loucka (story), Kôji Suzuki (novel)
Directed by: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, and Johnny Galecki
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
First you watch it. Then you die.
When it comes to the Ring franchise, some credit is due to Paramount. Even though The Ring Two didn’t match its predecessor’s haul at the box office, it still managed to triple its budget, meaning there was clearly some demand for this series still out there. It’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where the studio kept cranking them out, possibly even sending them straight to video, not unlike the fate that befell the likes of Pulse and The Grudge. And yet, they wisely showed restraint and let the franchise rest for over a decade, perhaps compelled by the ample amount of evidence that it’s damn hard to produce an effective sequel to The Ring.
But you had to figure Paramount was bound to eventually resurrect it, a proposition that’s something of a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it’s exciting just to return to this mythology; on the other, the long lull between movies sets a certain amount of expectations, even if the film’s multiple delays tempered them. If they’re finally reviving the franchise after all this time, surely Rings must be somehow worth the wait. Surely, they wouldn’t trot out any old dud, especially given the lukewarm reception surrounding the previous, now decade-old outing. If it isn’t obvious, I was genuinely holding out hope that F. Javier Gutierrez and company had cracked the secret to producing a great sequel, no matter how misguided that might be. And while that faith wasn’t completely rewarded, I’ve discovered that I’m also willing to settle for a perfectly fine sequel instead.
Maybe that makes me an easy mark, but Rings is far from an affront to a franchise that quite frankly never needed to be a franchise anyway. Just being a passably, breezy, mostly harmless entry almost feels like you’re playing with house money, and that’s more or less how this one plays out: I spent most of the time just satisfied it wasn’t a complete botch, so I was willing to take it on its own terms, even if that involves three different opening sequences, some obvious retreading, and some fairly subpar performances from the two leads. I also can’t stress enough that its 100-minute runtime holds an obvious appeal.
Once we’re finally introduced to them in the film’s third scene, Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe play Julia and Holt, a couple of teenage lovebirds forced to part when the latter heads off to college. After receiving a mysterious Skype message, a suspicious Julia heads off to the campus to find her suddenly unreachable boyfriend, where she crosses paths with Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki), a biology professor dedicated to researching the neuroscience of the afterlife. His main fascination is a very haunted, very familiar tape that kills anyone who watches it—unless they make a copy and pass it on. A preeminent expert on the subject of Samara Morgan, he’s created an entire on-campus subculture dedicated to documenting the seven days one spends after watching the tape. Unfortunately for Holt, however, his “tail” (the person assigned the task of watching his copy of the video) flakes, leaving Julia to watch it in an attempt to save her boyfriend’s life. Her sacrifice is rewarded by haunting images unlike any ever experienced by a test subject before.
First of all, yes, you should perhaps keep those expectations tempered for Rings. While delays and multiple reshoots aren’t exactly a death sentence, they don’t inspire confidence either; however, Rings at least falls in the middle of these two extremes since it’s a mostly competent effort at retracing some familiar steps. Because this franchise is rather limited for obvious reasons (I mean, hell, the title itself implies a closed loop), it’s not surprising that this one sends yet another character digging to uncover yet more of Samara’s sordid backstory. Once again, this franchise finds itself chasing the dragon that was the original film’s mystery without realizing it’s unlikely to ever happen, so we once again settle for leftover bits and chunks that only make Samara less interesting.
Déjà vu hangs thick as we once again watch someone sift through clues and news clippings, this time in an effort to figure out where Samara’s body was eventually buried after being recovered from that well years ago. It even involves a trip to a nearby town still haunted by the little girl, only it’s trading in Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson for a couple of kids who struggle to speak with convincing accents. “The Ring but with millennials” seems to be the pitch here, and I suppose it’d be apt to compare the whole thing to a third-generation copy of a tape: the basics are still there, but the details are fuzzier and the print is more stretched and worn. And not to belabor a point made in my Ring Two review, but the thrill and urgency are both inherently diminished after the first film: appropriately, this franchise might be forever doomed to be an ouroboros of itself, forever spiraling down the well, unwittingly circling the drain of intrigue due to its limited premise.
In fact, for Rings to work at all, it has to resort to embellishing on the mythology. It turns out Samara often chooses victims to carry out special tasks, with Julia serving as the twelfth such “apostle” (I can only assume Rachel Keller was the first). Such a dubious honor comes with her personal tape, which represents one of the film’s few attempts at embellishment. A decent attempt at recapturing the nightmare fuel that was the original tape, this latest unholy transmission has its fair share of unsettling imagery that doubles as a roadmap to Samara’s corpse (again). So much of Rings operates on adding slight wrinkles to the familiar formula: where The Ring Two had Rachel exploring the story of Samara’s birth mother, this one [slight spoilers ahead] has Julia going back even further by visiting Evelyn’s hometown. Naturally, this leads to her discovering the twisted truth behind Samara’s conception, not to mention the identity of her father. I swear, if they make another one of these, we’re going to meet the cursed sperm and egg that eventually became Samara.
I guess it seems like I’m being a little harsh on a film I referred to as “perfectly fine” a few paragraphs ago, so it’s only fair to extol its virtues. Say what you want about it, but this is the only Ring film to feature Vincent D’Onofrio as a blind cemetery caretaker, which is not to be taken lightly (I’m kind of digging this delightful turn where he randomly pops up—or literally Skypes into—horror movies). As a longtime Roseanne fan, I also can’t dismiss any film that boasts Johnny Galecki in its credits, and it’s nice to see him play a prominent role to boot. In fact, his Gabriel Brown is the most intriguing character in the film, and I kind of love that they revived the concept from the original “Rings” short, which also involved a group of people documenting their experiences after watching Samara’s tape. Honestly, an entire film dedicated to this premise would have been more daring than simply retreading (though I must admit that I have no idea what kind of story you’d carve out of that).
Then again, you can sense the struggle to find the story here practically playing out before your eyes. An opening scene on an airplane introduces three characters that have almost no bearing on the rest of the film. I can imagine the brainstorming behind the scene: “what if we did a prologue like the first two films, only we set it on a fucking plane?” It’s an absurd notion, and I admire the audacity of setting out to prove that Samara doesn’t give a damn where you are when your seven days are up, but it mostly reeks of a scene that stayed put because too much was invested in it just to cut it. The only time it’s ever mentioned again is in the very next scene, which finds Brown trawling through junk at a yard sale two years later, where he stumbles over an old VCR that was owned by a guy who died in a plane crash. You could easily cut that opening scene and lose nothing except whatever money Paramount threw at it.
The prologue is something of a microcosm for Rings, a film that feels extraneous itself. Fundamentally speaking, it does nothing to significantly alter the franchise until its final scene, which finally takes Samara where you always expected her to go in the broadband internet age (it also doesn’t help that the big “twist” here essentially takes the same route as the second film). By the end of Rings, you could be forgiven for wondering if it’s all that vital at all outside of setting up a potentially interesting sequel (yes, I am once again irrationally holding out hope for another sequel if we’re lucky to get one). In some ways, this feels like one of those imaginary DTV sequels we never got following The Ring Two.
To his credit, Gutierrez doesn’t treat it as such, as he confidently steps into the franchise’s sandbox and manages to have some fun. Granted, a lot of it is familiar since one of his big go-to tricks is restaging Samara’s emergence from various screens, whether it be a toppled-over high-def television or a smartphone. He’s obviously aware that she’s become the main draw, so she appears often enough to cause chaos and carnage regardless of the rules set in place by her tape; at one point, she even causes a Final Destination style death even though the victim had already broken her curse. No matter how silly it is, Rings could use more of this sort of stuff to liven it up a bit, especially since it otherwise leans on the sort of loud, obnoxious jolts found in many Ring imitators. While Gutierrez impressively recaptures the slick, gloomy visuals of Verbinski’s film, it recaptures little of the dread atmosphere. It’s more of a blunt instrument, right down to a brutal climactic confrontation that unfortunately reveals the perils of delays and reshoots: ultimately, Rings recalls a recently-released hit film that didn’t start shooting until after Gutierrez wrapped principal photography.
As such, Rings is plagued by the familiar “one step forward, two steps back” problems that haunted the first sequel. For every cool thing it does, it’s hamstrung by familiarity and a lack of real urgency. The climax is neat, but it’s literally just been done in superior fashion. The concept of a cult forming around Samara’s tape is intriguing, but it’s just reheated leftovers. The opening plane sequence is wild, but it’s unnecessary. The fact that Rings is an actual sequel is a pleasant surprise, but it’s such a retread that it may as well be another remake. Perhaps this franchise is meant to be forever stuck in this holding pattern, unable to break the cycle—I couldn’t help but chuckle when Samara’s updated tape featured footage of a snake eating its own tail, an image that unwittingly captures the plight of a series paralyzed by its own impossible existence.
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