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THE RING
2002
Written by Ehren Kruger and directed by Gore Verbinski
115 Minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references.

I'm trying to figure out how I get from seeing a movie in the theatre five times to barely defending it in a final review. To be sure, I adored The Ring when I first caught it at a sneak preview. It felt fresh, vibrant, and full of a delightfully menacing energy. Time has not been kind to it, nor has education.

Popular culture would place this film on par with The Exorcist in terms of the "scariest movie ever made," and that I'll definitely buy. Verbinski's film eschews the relentlessly creeping dread of its antecedent in favor of more overt menace, and a lot more jump scares and surprises. So the $20,000 question I have to answer for you now is: if The Ring is a horror film, and one of the scariest ever made (at least in the States), how can it conceivably be a bad film?

Time has punished The Ring the way it did with Wes Craven's Scream: by producing a league of imitators that ultimately result in a string of failures, failures that in turn reveal the flaws in the original film. The difference is that when Kevin Williamson and others were producing a wealth of shitty new material after Scream, the Asian horror remake craze can be placed squarely on the shoulders of producer Roy Lee. Roy Lee started his career as a cinematic carpetbagger off the heels of this film, going on to produce pretty much every shitty remake of an Asian film that's been foisted on us over the past few years. This motherfucker is why we can't have nice things, and as a producer his work as an intermediary has been painfully lowest-common-denominator, with remakes having generally miserable talent behind the camera and talent in front that peaks largely at mediocre. The only decent movies he's produced are this film and The Departed, with the latter being ostensibly superior to its predecessor (for what it's worth, I do think Infernal Affairs is by far the lesser film.)

The Ring's problems are two-fold: Gore Verbinski is not a good director, and Ehren Kruger is not a good screenwriter. Prior to making this film, Verbinski had made Mousehunt and The Mexican, neither generally regarded as cinematic masterpieces. His later work, outside of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, is equally lackluster. Likewise, Ehren Kruger's scripts are pretty notoriously awful, unless you consider Scream 3, The Brothers Grimm, and Skeleton Key to be quality films. The only saving graces are that the film is based solely on Nakata and Takahashi's refined Ring with no connection to the novel, that Naomi Watts plays the lead and brings credible and solid acting to a heretofore underwritten part, and that Tak Fujimoto's gorgeous cinematography takes some of the stank off of Verbinski's awful direction. Given the film's origins, it's impressive that it wound up being as scary or as good as it is.

Credit where credit is due: the filmmakers clearly weren't going for the same type of scare as their predecessors, and Ring and The Ring both treat the entire film as a sort of "extended cursed video tape" in their style and design. The Ring's cursed video is very literal and shocking, in place of the eerie, otherworldly qualities of Ring's. The rest of the film is very similar, and Kruger and Verbinski do add some impressive shocks to the mix. They also beef up the main character, whose strength is carried the rest of the way by Naomi Watts (still one of my favorite actresses.) Toning down Ryuji's character as Noah doesn't work quite as well, but it isn't damning, and Martin Henderson is at least compelling and charming enough. I guarantee you the film wouldn't have been half as good without Watts in the lead, though.

But they stumble horribly elsewhere. As far as characters go, little psychic child-man Aidan was prototyped by Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense before being played by David Dorfman as an obnoxious little shit here, a far cry from the more lovable and sympathetic Yoichi in Ring. Aidan is like season one's Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, making assholes out of everyone else in the film while being profoundly unlikable on his own. Sadako's American counterpart, Samara, fares little better. Part of this is due to the complete overhaul of the second act, which feeds her more backstory, but part of it is also due to making the character younger. Creepy children were getting stale when The Ring came out, and time hasn't treated this trope kindly. While Daveigh Chase does a fine job, the central conceit unfortunately calls back to more interesting (and threatening) child villains, particularly Damien in The Omen.

The next stumble is one I can't be too hard on the film for. Understanding the second act was the weakest link in the other versions, the American film unceremoniously guts the entire thing and rewrites from scratch. I hesitate to say it doesn't work at all, it just doesn't work particularly well, and is salvaged by key roles being played by veteran character actors like Jane Alexander and Brian Cox. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is left largely intact from its predecessor, and so it doesn't really gel the way it ought to.

One more failure before we get to my biggest pet peeve. The finale, though still retaining some power to shock, Verbinski's decision to intercut it with other material is damning and defuses a lot of building suspense. It's a testament to the power of the image (as originally realized by Nakata and Takahashi) that with this intercutting the scene still manages to deliver a pretty damn good scare.

And of course, what pissed me off more royally than anything else: Verbinski's direction. The film is so utterly rife with depth-of-field that characters virtually never inhabit the spaces they're in. It's always so shallow, spaces are barely established, and it takes on a kind of pornographic quality. He knows no other way to control your attention than to neatly separate his subjects from their background, but this kind of thinking suggests a lack of faith in the material, in the settings, and in a way, in the actors. His approach may focus more on the actor, but it actually asks less of the actor, who no longer has to do very much to draw attention to him-or-herself, to stand out from the scenery, anything really. The intense focus solely on the characters is pedantic and devastating, sapping the film of any kind of undercurrent of dread.

The fundamental problem is ultimately that The Ring has no staying power. It falls apart under scrutiny in ways that its predecessor did not; I can go back and rewatch Ring and appreciate the craft, but I can't do that with The Ring. That's a shame, because there are traces of good ideas here. There's a reason this film didn't review well with critics even though it was a hit with the general public: people who know film know something poorly conceived and executed when they see it, while the general public is going to gloss over these things. It's because of this effect on the movie-going masses that I can't damn it, but at the same time, I can safely say that it just isn't a good film.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.