The Good: Good use of metaphor, Interesting characters, Decent acting
The Bad: Ending, Plot holes big enough to drive a tank through, Col. Curtis, Spells everything out
The Basics: When an alien invasion comes, this reviewer recommends not watching the preview and to prepare yourself for a bit of a letdown with Dreamcatcher.
For years, I have been trumpeting the instant credibility a movie by Terry Gilliam or P.T. Anderson has when it is released based on the concept that they have created two of the greatest movies of all time (Brazil and Magnolia, respectively). I have not garnered the third director in my top three movies the same respect (though Kevin Smith, down the list a little way for his perfect film Dogma, is enough to get me to go to the movies to see his flicks). I write about Lawrence Kasdan, writer some years ago of a wonderful little movie called The Empire Strikes Back. While George Lucas wrote the story for the Star Wars films, it fell to Lawrence Kasdan to co-write the script of what it generally believed to be the qualitatively best film of the franchise. Kasdan, I felt, never got enough credit for that and I realized I was somewhat guilty of that same prejudice against him, so I decided to rectify that with a viewing of Dreamcatcher.
Dreamcatcher, my attempt to look into the directoral stylings of Lawrence Kasdan, was immediately prejudiced by the writer of the film. Stephen King wrote the novel upon which Dreamcatcher is based and that is a serious detraction for me. I'm not a fan of King. I've been unimpressed by his prose and his cinematic works (Sleepwalkers, the terrible episode of The X-Files he wrote) have failed to impress me. In fact, the episode of The X-Files he wrote remains one of the low-water marks of the series and I called the last shot of the episode the moment the doll was first revealed. And I was right. I was generally surprised, then, with Dreamcatcher.
Four friends, who share an extraordinary ability that seems to be a convergence of telepathy and clairvoyance, take a trip to Maine for some relaxation. Unfortunately, while there, they find themselves at the epicenter of an alien invasion. That invasion seems to take the form of fungus, toothed worms and a creature that can mask its true appearance. Unfortunately for Jonesy, Beaver, Pete and Dr. Devlin, the special forces that are called in under Col. Abraham Curtis are planning on wiping out just about everyone in the infected area, including them.
Unfortunately for the audience, it is the addition of the military characters that corrupts and otherwise decent movie. This surprised me, because - as I said - I'm not a fan of Stephen King's works. Up to the moment the movie becomes schizophrenic between telling a tight character-driven story with the buddies vs. the overarching military story, Dreamcatcher is a real winner. Sadly, with the addition of Col. Curtis, the movie falls into a tailspin that levels out at average.
One of the fundamental problems with Hollywood films is that they believe the audience is incapable of comprehending the concept of a massive threat or group mind. So, for example, in Star Trek: First Contact (reviewed here!), the Borg are given the singular face and body of the Borg Queen to represent the struggle against what had previously been a near-invincible hive-mind force. In Dark City (reviewed here!), the conflict ultimately comes down to a clash between Mr. Book and John Murdoch. A decentralized enemy is not as cinematically dramatic. It is, however, far more frightening because there is no single target that can be eliminated to eliminate the overall threat.
Dreamcatcher falls into the "One man, One Enemy" philosophy ultimately and that leads to the greatest disappointment of the movie. The final battle, reshot to bring this concept to bear weakens the entire story. Indeed, the original ending - available on the DVD - falls more within the realism of the story presented and works for a much more intriguing ending than the special-effect laden climax we see in the standard release.
And this is fundamentally what the problem is; the story diverges abruptly from the strong character-narrative into a plot-driven formula in the middle. And this leads to all of the true weaknesses of the movie. In some ways, it would have served the film to make the story as two completely separate narratives, as opposed to combining them. That is to say, I could live with Col. Curtis doing his thing if it had nothing to do with the four friend story. In fact, what could be more dramatic and intriguing than seeing the military wipe out all of what it believes the Plague is as we watch four friends fight the last of the threat without the resources of the military? That would have made for an incredible story.
Instead, we are treated to the crazy Col. Curtis, who enters into every cliche in the book. Curtis enforces discipline with brutality. He is the entrenched officer that seems strangely less-schooled than some of the newcomers. And he reveals a plethora of information that cuts deeply into the plot.
This is an alien invasion movie. There is no real surprise there. Col. Curtis informs the viewer that he has been fighting this exact type of alien for the past twenty years. Okay, we can live with that. He also mentions that They have never invaded anywhere so cold before. Okay, we can live with that as well. We are also informed that the parasitic worms that are one of the three forms of the invaders could take over the planet if just one worm entered the water supply. And this is no small problem with the plot.
We are asked to believe that in HOTTER climates, where water is important and access to it is greater, in a TWENTY year war, NOT ONE worm has entered our water supply?! Please! I'm more likely to believe that alien worms exist in our water supply here in reality than believe - given the determined way they fight in Dreamcatcher that over twenty years in hotter climates, these fictional aliens couldn't lay one worm egg into the water supply. That's just stupid.
And, sadly, the role of top-billed Morgan Freeman of Col. Curtis is nothing of a stretch for the talented actor. Freeman brings nothing new or original to the role. This is not anything but a "type," harkening back to Apocalypse Now and Heart Of Darkness. We've seen it and here Freeman does not add anything.
Fortunately for the viewer, his entrance into the movie comes well after the viewer is effectively hooked. In no small part, the viewer is intrigued by the relationship between Devlin, Beaver, Jonesy and Pete. From the opening scenes, they seem to have some special power and that draws us in to learn about what made them who they are and that is surprisingly effective here. All three are likable and one of the scenes that sets the movie apart is a flashback wherein the four boys defy the conventions of being called a chicken by older bullies by unashamedly admitting they are willing to run away from a problem and tell everyone in town what the bullies are doing. It's a surprisingly clever reversal from the norm and in the context of the movie, it's wonderful to see it is successful.
Similarly, one of the central protagonists, Jonesy (a more subtle and clever reference to Alien than the nickname the military gives to the creatures of "Ripleys") employs a clever metaphor. His memory is literally a warehouse. So, we see him make room for new information by purging old information and it's clever and works well for making his character and his character's struggle realistic and interesting to the viewer.
Partly that is because of the quality of the acting. Damian Lewis skillfully plays Jonesy with changes in voice, facial expression and accent. There are several scenes where he is acting against himself and they work completely based on the strength of his performance.
Unfortunately, it's not enough to save the work. It's just too far gone by the problems with the story to view as anything other than entertainment. I'm not blaming Lawrence Kasdan, his directing is not at fault. He takes a shaky script and does the best with it that he can. But at the end of the day, this is no The Empire Strikes Back.
For other science fiction horror movies, please visit my reviews of:
The X-Files: I Want To Believe
The Cabin In The Woods
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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