It’s not Stephen King’s best book, and it is far from the best screenplay produced by either Lawrence Kasden (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Big Chill”) or William Goldman (“The Princess Bride,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). It is mishmash, covering favorite King themes like the loyalty of childhood friends, the isolation of a snow-covered cabin in the woods, extra-sensory abilities, a fatalistic determinism, the devastating impact of one person who snaps, and extra-terrestrials. There’s even a sort of Wizard of Oz-ish “you had the power in you all along” theme. It may not work as a whole for anyone, but there is something in it to scare the bejeebers out of just about everyone.
Beaver (Jason Lee), Henry (Thomas Jane), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) are boyhood friends who share a secret connection that we only learn about gradually through flashbacks. A good deed resulted in their being given special power to “know things.” Every year, they go away together to a cabin in the woods. On this trip, strange things happen. The animals all leave the forest. A government helicopter calls down to tell them they are quarantined. A man staggers out of the woods, disoriented and subject to intense intestinal distress. A woman, almost frozen to death, is also disoriented and subject to intense intestinal distress. Strange red patches appear on the faces of both, and then really strange things start to happen. It turns out that all of this is due to an alien invasion, and this is not the kind of friendly ET with whom you would want a close encounter.
And that’s not all that’s scary. There is a team of government specialists led by Colonel Kurtz (note the Heart of Darkness reference) who use words like “contain” and “perimeter” that mean “wipe out everyone who has had any possible contact with the aliens. Better to slaughter innocent people than to risk additional exposure.” He seems to be walking the tightrope between genius and insanity, and we’re not sure if he’s a necessary evil or a more dangerous threat than the extraterrestrials.
So, that leaves us just about every kind and category of scariness, a catalog of terror, including yuckiness (remember that intestinal distress? snake-like aliens with big teeth exit the body out the alimentary canal), gore (buckets of blood, grisly injuries and deaths), tension (what’s behind that door?), creepiness, intense peril, is-that-you-or-is-it-the-alien-using-your-body moments, and good, old-fashioned jump-out-at-you surprises.
King (and Kasdan and Goldman) have a knack for creating likable characters with conversations we like to overhear, and the four main actors are all exceptionally appealing. The art direction and cinematography are top-notch, especially the first-rate visualization of Jonesy’s “memory warehouse,” the place where, as he explains, now that he is older, he can’t add anything without taking something out.
The weaker parts of the movie are the section about the secret defense department operation led by Kurtz. Even the masterful Freeman can’t quite make that character work, and the attempt to create a parallel between the peril created by the outside force and the peril from within does not work, either. There is a very, very silly moment when Henry’s particular form of ESP requires him to use a gun as a telephone. When that same gun turns out to have a homing device implanted, both Henry and Kurtz are using the gun to communicate and track someone.
Lewis can’t quite manage the second personality that takes him over, and by the way, even though movie villains usually have English accents, isn’t that something of a stretch when the bad guy is not only not from England, but not from Earth? Still, as I watched this movie, I noticed that the audience reaction sounded like they were on a roller-coaster ride, a good sign in a scary movie. It’s not a classic like “Carrie” or “The Shining,” but it is a nicely done scarefest, and achieves its modest ambitions.
Parents should know that the movie is intensely scary, and violent, as noted above. Characters use very strong language and make explicit and graphic sexual references. One character abuses alcohol, and many drink and smoke.
Families who see this movie should talk about disabled people, and why some people go out of their way to pick on them while others appreciate their gifts. What made the four boys so loyal to each other? How do we know when a person like Kurtz has gone too far, and at that point, who can stop him? He makes a Jeremy Bentham-like argument that the ends justify the means. Under what circumstances is that the case?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy some of the best Stephen King novels and movies, including “Carrie” and “The Shining.”