Lessons in Narrative Function
After a highly successful remake two years ago and substantial hype machine behind this sequel, I still didn’t really have much desire to see IT Chapter Two. Since I review movies, it was inevitable but plunking down nearly 3 hours on this endeavor was not high on my list of priorities. Turns out my instinct for these things is pretty good. Despite top-notch production quality and a strong cast, there was an inescapable lack of cohesion and focus that haunted the finished product.
Trying to pick up exactly where they left off after two years wasn’t easy and, after a very brief refresher, kicking things off with a hate crime against a homosexual couple was an incredibly odd way to bring the audience back to Derry…and ultimately a mistake. The scene is from Stephen King’s original novel, based on a real-life event that happened in his home town, and it was meant to show how evil exists in people (not just monsters) but it’s completely out of context in this movie. Those types of attitudes and incidents surely exist in small-town America, and meaningful inclusion of them is a good thing, but it really didn’t make any sense here and came across as exploitative. I’m sure it was well-intentioned but test screening and editing room sessions should have been enough to move away from it. We all should have known where this story was supposed to go but it was already off the rails only a few minutes in.
Things didn’t exactly course-correct after that either. The next half hour or so consisted of adult Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) calling each of the other kids one-by-one so we can get a look at who and what they’ve grown up to be. The primary problem there is their adult lives don’t really matter. They are no longer in contact or connected in any way beyond the events of the first film and, until Mike picks up the phone, none of them even remember what happened. That part is explained away just fine but there was no narrative value to the sequence of it all. It would have been better for them to reconnect and just learn about one another’s lives organically. The audience already knew the plot, so what relevance do their jobs really hold? It was a thinly veiled effort to extrapolate characters from their childhood experiences but…oh, that’s right…they didn’t even remember it! Thematically, it’s supposed to be representative of supressed childhood trauma but it’s not very well thought out. So, it’s not until about 45-minutes in that the characters actually realize and acknowledge the plot that everyone else already knew. They’re all here to stop this clown, right? Can we please get to it now? Yes, of course…nope!
Naturally, none of them wants to deal with Pennywise the second time around (except for Mike who stayed in Derry his whole life just to keep tabs on him) so we’re going to need another solid hour of convincing. Perhaps I’m being obtuse, but why exactly are they afraid again? They defeated an ancient demon with minimal effort as a group of kids but, as adults, they’re all so terrified that they want to tuck tail and run? That doesn’t make much sense. Gary Dauberman’s screenplay just used it as a crutch to give each character an individual arc where they could conquer their fears before the final confrontation. The bigger problem here is that the movie wasn’t scary. Dauberman’s script was so heavily focused on the comedic ribbing between the ensemble, it traded in fear for laughter. Some horror-comedies are very effective like Shaun of the Dead or Slither but those films have the relative self-awareness not to try and play both sides. However, if the characters aren’t taking the situation seriously here, why should the audience?
Additionally, even having enjoyed the first film, the character names didn’t particularly stick and connecting the dots between the adult actors and the child they were representing was a challenge. Jessica Chastain and Mustafa were obvious but even James McAvoy wasn’t immediately identifiable as Bill until he eventually began stammering. At first, I just chalked it up to my own general disinterest…maybe those who really loved the first movie just had better recall of the characters…but that middle hour-plus, consisting of individual flashbacks, pretty much proved my point. Unfortunately, the screenplay simply wasn’t strong enough to effectively inform the audience on its own.
Eventually, around two-hours in, they finally all agree to go after the clown…duh. The lack of direction was particularly puzzling since Andy Muschietti had already directed the first one, which Dauberman had also written the script for. Typically, when a writer/director pair work together for the second time, things improve. At first, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what was holding this movie back but as it drudged along it became much more apparent why King’s book was initially adapted into a mini-series back in 1990. Downsizing from novel to film always requires certain sacrifices but there were at least three distinct individual segments of this movie rather than a beginning, middle, and end. Film Editor Jason Ballantine could have easily trimmed half an hour without losing much. The actual story for this movie is so ridiculously straight forward, it’s only natural to dress things up a bit but both the pace and the tone were far too easily and sidetracked.
After everything that got us here the ending just wasn’t very good. In the final showdown, the group’s plan fails which was set up well enough but when they move on to plan B, it also fails. It’s at this point they just decide to just make something up on the spot and, naturally, it works! In fact, it was so easy it undermined the characters’ struggle and the entire journey up until that point. There’s a strange joke that runs throughout the film about how Bill grew up to be an author who can’t seem to write good endings for his stories. This point is touched upon maybe half a dozen times including the scene with Stephen King’s cameo. It’s like the filmmakers knew the ending was weak beforehand and just decided to write it into the script as an inside joke rather than make a good one.
Despite a litany of issues, the production value was superb and certainly kept things afloat during the weakest moments. Bringing on Oscar-winner Paul D. Austerberry as the production designer made for a more substantial visual footprint and he elevated the creepiness factor to a new level while the design team did a phenomenal job crafting the individual creature elements. The visual effects are both spectacular and some of the most horrifying you could imagine. Even the set design by Shane Vieau through the last third of the film was exceptional and an expansion on the ideas put forth in the first film. While the script struggled, the creative shot-making by Cinematographer Checco Varese provided the project some much-needed cohesion.
This may be the highest-grossing rated-R horror movie of all time but that’s because it’s not really scary. It’s about as tame as you can get for an R and has more of a Goonies vibe to it. Obviously, it’s a smart move by Warner Bros since more palatable films tend to have broader audiences and bigger box office returns but I found it rather boring more often than not. It’s tough to argue with nearly a $400-million worldwide box office but IT Chapter Two failed to deliver the fear for which it’s predicated on.
Recommendation: If you wanted to see this movie, you probably did already. If you’re on the fence, you can probably skip it. Fans of the horror genre should be able to find enough redeemable takeaways.