They All Float Down Here – IT and the Return of Character in Hollywood Horror

Imagine the scenario.  James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jon Snow, and Marty McFly all find themselves trapped in a cell with no means of escape.  Within the cell, they find a revolver with 5 bullets.  They are told that the only way out is for one person to shoot and kill the others with one bullet each, with the lone survivor set free.  Now, with those six characters, who do you think will be the last one left.  There are a variety of answers given to that scenario, but in truth there is only one real answer.  None of those characters make it out because none of them exist.  And yet, we know these characters and care about them to wonder what might happen.  This is the fundamental rule of storytelling.  For a story to work, we must know who the players are, and want to follow their progression through the narrative.  It sounds easy enough to do, but more often than not, you see a lot of stories fall apart because they forget to make their characters interesting or relatable.  A lot of times, characters are often treated as pieces on a chess board, moved along as part of a grander plan on the part of the storyteller, who merely is concerned with moving from point A to point B.  But, characters shouldn’t function as pawns, they should function as people; and people are complex beings who have their own interests and concerns that run contrary to other people’s plans.  With this in mind, a storyteller can craft a much deeper storyline.  But, as with seen in Hollywood, concerns about character and story often take a back seat to being able to finish a product quickly and on budget.  Oftentimes, in order to capitalize on trends in the market, movies rush through production without devoting enough time to giving characters the development they need.  You see this a lot in genre flicks, and most recently, it was a problem in the Horror genre.

Horror is a genre as old as cinema itself.  Dating back to when German Expressionists revolutionized the use of shadows to convey terror, all the way through Universal’s monster flicks and the 1950’s B-movie craze, it has been a genre that has matured and found all sorts of different avenues to define itself.  But, along with some of the milestones of the genre, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), there has been nearly ten times as many copycats who capitalize on the success with diminishing results.  There are a lot of reasons why so many horror flicks fail in the long run, but what you’ll find most of the time is that a good deal of them forget to focus on their characters, and instead let the gimmicks of their plot run wild.  Going back to my opening scenario, we see that identifying who the characters are and what they might do is what ultimately drives the tension of the scene.  But, when you have a genre that’s built more around famous scenes rather than famous characters, which the Horror genre usually is, than you see more a tendency on the part of the filmmakers to forget to give their characters any interesting qualities.  For many years, primarily in the post-Saw (2004), gore-obsessed years of the 2000’s, it became almost commonplace for there to be thinly drawn characters in each film.  But, this was largely a problem of Hollywood’s own making.  Outside of Hollywood, a new type of Horror sub-class began to emerge, one that emphasized the psychological and macabre rather than the bloodied and the mangled.  More importantly, it was horror that returned to the idea that the best way to scare audiences was to make them feel the same thing that the characters are feeling, and this meant making more identifiable and interesting characters.  Steadily, these outsiders have built a quiet bit of success that is now influencing the industry in a positive way, and this has all culminated with the record breaking success of the remake to Stephen King’s IT, currently in theaters.

People expected IT to perform well, but I don’t think people expected these kinds of numbers from the grosses.  As of this writing, IT has grossed 310 million dollars domestic, surpassing The Exorcist (1974) as the highest grossing horror film of all time.  Some will probably point to the popularity of the now 30 year old novel it’s based on as the reason for doing so well, as well as the familiarity that people have with the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries staring Tim Curry.  But, I think that IT’s success comes from it’s embracing of a trend in Horror film-making that has finally gone mainstream.  We are finally moving out of a period where terror is conveyed not through blood but through mood.  We all know the feeling of isolation and the worry that something bad is right around the corner waiting to get us, and the only way to convey that in a film is to through the emotions of the characters.  Recent films made by independent filmmakers on significantly lower budgets have managed to make that work, because the limitations of their films make it so that they can utilize emotion much better in their movies.  Hollywood has more often chosen to force scares on their audience rather than earning them, and as a result, audiences have become less scared by their movies.  Working outside of what studios think is scary is a more freeing way to build genuine new ideas about how to make something scary and that’s what we’ve seen.  By showing less to an audience, it makes the scares have that much more of an impact.  The new IT applies that approach to something with broad commercial appeal, and thus we get the phenomena that is the record breaking box office.  But,  more fundamentally, it is carrying over something into Hollywood that it desperately needs, which is characters worth getting scared for.

One of the trends that IT and it’s peers have in common is it’s fearlessness in showing vulnerable people in peril.  The main characters of IT are children, all with distinctive personalities of their own.  Stephen King’s novel is all about the loss of innocence and that is no better conveyed than through the confrontation between a group of tormented kids in a small town and a blood-thirsty monster clown named Pennywise.  In the novel, every benign symbol of childhood, from balloons to cartoons, are turned on their head and become objects of terror, meant to drive the kids insane.  Adapting that kind of stuff to the big screen can be tricky, but can be done if we believe that the children themselves are scared by it.  That’s what the new IT has done so successfully; it put special emphasis in choosing the right kinds of child actors who could pull off feeling terrified on screen, even when it came to being terrorized by balloons.  For the longest time before, when a young actor made it into a horror movie, they felt out of place, especially in the gore fest films of the 90’s and 2000’s.  One of the more annoying trope of that time was the creepy kid cliche, which rarely came across as scary the more it was used.  You would see this in a lot of forgettable horror flicks like The Unborn (2009), Orphan (2009), Mama (2013), as well as a numerous amount of knockoffs and remakes in that time.  IT breaks from that trend by making the children the victims of the terror, rather than the harbingers of it, and that calls for younger actors who are more confident with this material.  In other words, the filmmakers didn’t cast children because of how well they could be scared, but rather by how well they could feel like real people.  If they are believable as characters, and they are terrified, then we will be too.

This also reverses a trend in horror films where the movie became defined more by the monsters rather than the people.  Sure, the monsters are interesting creations, but when they are only ones that are in their selective films, than it becomes less about the terror they inspire and more about seeing what horror they can do.  That, in a sense, is what made horror films less scary over time.  You would see this play out very distinctively in the post-Scream (1996) era, when it seemed that every horror film was following the same formula of a group of teenagers all falling victim to some shadowing serial killer who picks them off one by one.  Over time, this formula was repeated so much that the killers themselves became much less interesting.  Then, post-The Ring (2001), ghosts became the go to movie monster, and that began to grow stale after a while, especially deep into the Paranormal Activity (2007) era.  In a different era, a remake of IT would have done away with the interesting character dynamics with the child characters and instead just made Pennywise the focus, showing all the creepy and disgusting ways he could terrorize and feast on his victims.  It works far better to use far less of him in the film and only showcase him for the maximum impact.  As far as cinematic movie monsters go, Pennywise is certainly one of the more mysterious, and that’s a part of his appeal as a character.  Stephen King has never been one to really explain why something is evil; he just allows his creations to be evil for the sake of the story.  The hotel is haunted for no other reason than to drive Jack Torrence insane and want to murder his family, and that’s where the horror of The Shining comes from for example.  Combining believable victims of terror with an enigmatic, impulsive force that’s out to kill them, and you’ve got the makings of effective suspense.

IT’s predecessors managed to create the formula to help reverse a lot of the Hollywood cliches that had plagued the horror genre for years.  One place outside of Hollywood where that happened was oversees in Australia, where director Jennifer Kent created a breakthrough horror film called The Babadook (2014).  The movie flipped the monster film on it’s head by making the terror in the film come not from seeing the presence of the titular spirit, but through the psychological toll that fear takes on the mother and child at the center of the story.  In this film, we see that horror can be found in a story as simple as two people alone in a house, growing increasingly desperate and paranoid and what that ultimately leads to, making it irrelevant whether or not a creature like the Babadook even exists at all.  Another groundbreaking horror film, The Witch (2015), made the daring choice of setting it’s story in 17th century colonial America, utilizing the eeriness of the isolation in that time period to develop a sense of dread in the picture.  The way it was shot, with low lighting and soft contrast also elevated the uneasy creepiness of the setting to maximize the terror in the film.  The other most interesting trend setter of this period was the indie horror flick It Follows (2014).  It Follows won widespread praise for the effective way that it built it’s terror through the psychological degradation of it’s main characters.  In the movie, a young woman is continually followed by a supernatural force that haunts her constantly, which began after a sexual encounter early in the film.  Clearly a metaphor for a lot of things (STD’s or Sexual Assault) the specter is never clearly identified, and always appears on screen as a far off human-like figure that is walking towards our main character.  It’s a great execution of having the terror play off the emotions and internal terror of the main character, which is a cue that the new IT has taken to heart.  With renewed emphasis on character dynamics, psychological torture, and an unconventional use of time and place, we see how effectively IT managed to use these independent production’s breakthroughs in a way that helped them reach the mainstream.

But, even with their help, the horror genre is movie in a bolder new direction, and it’s not just on the back of the recent IT remake.  Filmmakers like James Wan, who pioneered the gore-fest trend with his first feature Saw, have also been moving away from Hollywood cliches and have been working to make horror films far more effective at scaring audiences again.  His 2013 film The Conjuring was a critical and financial success, and it managed to work by sticking to effective non flashy scares that never overshadowed the the story that he intended to tell.  Another breakthrough figure to emerge recently in the horror genre is producer Jason Blum.  His Blum House Production company has revolutionized the business by emphasizing novel new ideas in the horror and thriller genres, but also limiting them to tight micro budgets.  This has enabled his company to not go overboard with the productions of their films, while at the same time allowing new voices and ideas to flourish; in other words, keeping all of that Hollywood nonsense out of the way.  As a result, the horror genre not only has new films that are trying to do something different, but also have something to say as well, which few industry driven movies have been able to do in the genre overall.  One Blum House production earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), turned some heads when it not only worked as an effective terror-filled thriller, but also had some sharp satirical statements to make about race relations in the United States, proving that horror films could be political statements too.  Blum also got M. Night Shaymalan’s career back on track with the success of Split (2017) which is an achievement in itself.  It’s by allowing this freedom within a structure that we see a new identity emerging in the horror genre from Blum House and it’s contemporaries, and one that is only going to be emboldened by IT’s massive success.

So, IT by no means got to where it’s at on it’s own, but it nevertheless marks the significant arrival of a new trend in Hollywood horror.  We are finally getting back to having the characters matter in horror movies again, after it seemed like the industry had forgotten how important it was to make them connect with the audience.  IT works as a perfect catalyst to convince the industry as a whole that yes, it does matter to have characters we care about in horror movies.  Sure, there are more holdovers from a less creative time still making it to theaters, like The Bye Bye Man, which seems like it was pitched solely on it’s marketable slogan (“Don’t think it. Don’t Say it.”) or Ouija (2014) which shows that you can’t turn a board game into a scary movie.  But, remaking IT made sense because we are now at a time when we crave horror flicks that take their character’s plight seriously.  The loss of innocence is a universal fear, and nothing scares more than a scary clown hunting young children.  The film would have probably done well on it’s own, but became massive due to the fact that it culminated a larger trend within the industry.  Amazingly, it’s a trend that didn’t come to the horror genre internally, but from the outside, with different independent filmmakers rethinking the genre rules entirely.  A horror movie, as we’ve come to learn, doesn’t need to push jump scares on you every minute, but can instead build terror slowly through mood and emotion.  It can also trust the performers more in conveying that sense of terror to the audience; even when they are children.  We find this in all the most recent horror classics, with IT becoming the first real mainstream blockbuster to emerge from this new field.  It may not be the best example of all of these new horror techniques, but it’s the one that found the best use of them for mass appeal, and for that, it has left a positive mark on the Horror genre going forward.  A strong tide rises all ships, and as Pennywise the Clown continually says, they all float down here.

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

Some movies are instant classics, while others become classics over time; aging like fine wine.  When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came to theaters 35 years ago, it did not perform well at the box office.  Released in a rather remarkable summer season that also included the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialBlade Runner was viewed as too slow-paced and ponderous by critics and audiences at the time.  For a time, it seemed like the movie would remain a relic of it’s time and then something remarkable happened.  It found it’s audience, and turned not just into a cult hit, but became one of the most defining cinematic milestones of late 20th century.  You can see the influence of Blade Runner in everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell (1995), to The Matrix (1999), to even the visual pop of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with all it’s flashy neon color.  The future that we also live in has somewhat seen an influence from the movie, including how some of it’s imagined future tech like video based communication, synthetic food and artificial intelligence have become a reality in our present day.  Truth be told, the then far off future date of 2019 looks far different than the reality that we see only 2 years out, but there is quite a lot that the movie did predict right. Also of note is the philosophical legacy that the movie has left behind.  Taking it’s cue from the original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” from futurist Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner asked many questions that still are debated today; much of which centers around the basic idea of what it means to be human.  Several decades after it’s release, Blade Runner continues to be an influential film and it’s esteem only continues to grow; with more and more people claiming it as one of the best every made.  And now, 35 years later, Hollywood has done something thought unthinkable before; they made a sequel to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt a gamble.  One can see rebooting a franchise after a long absence if it’s got the kind of following that could justify it.  Sometimes it works out well (Mad Max: Fury RoadTron: LegacyStar Wars: The Force Awakens), other times it does not (2016’s Ghostbusters).  But, what these successful reboots have in common was their basis in the action genre.  Blade Runner is considered by many to be a thinking man’s film.  Oh sure, there are action bits in it, but the movie takes it’s cues more from classic film noir, using mood and atmosphere to build the story.  The success of Blade Runner comes from it’s perfect execution of those noir tropes, transplanted into a sci-fi plot-line.  One of the biggest fears that fans of Blade Runner had going into this movie was the worry that it would be given the Hollywood treatment, meaning that the sequel would take out all the noir elements that made the first film great and replace it with a lot more action.  To many of them, the idea of a sequel at all seemed to be an insult, because the first film stood so well on it’s own; anything else would just spoil what was already there.  While some of those worries are justified, there was a lot of good omens leading up to the making of this movie.  Ridley Scott, who’s recent track record with sequels isn’t all that great (Alien: Covenant for example), wisely stepped aside and just assumed the role of producer this time, giving the reins over to rising star Denis Villeneuve.  The French Canadian filmmaker has been on a role recently with Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) all winning critical acclaim, and he couldn’t be better suited to carry the mantle for this daunting project.  Couple that with Harrison Ford making another return to an iconic role, surrounded with a prestige cast and crew, and you’ve got the makings of an A-List production.  But, is it a film worthy to carry on the legacy of such an iconic film, or is it Hollywood once again milking a product and missing the point.

It’s hard to say much about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so I’ll try to keep the important stuff vague.  It is important to have some knowledge of the original movie in order to understand the intricacies of the plot, but at the same time it does a pretty decent job of laying that stuff out for you while at the same time feeling distinctly it’s own thing.  The movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner.  In that time, the earth’s climate has catastrophically changed, leading to a global shift in weather patterns.  Los Angeles, the setting for this story, is now cold and frigid, and sees frequent snowfalls.  Every part of the city is shrouded in a misty haze, and it is in this urban sprawl that we find a young “blade runner” named simply K (Ryan Gosling).  He is assigned by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to track down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The replicants (human-like androids with superior strength) have been used for the last several decades to colonize distant planets beyond Earth, but older generations were known to be rebellious against their masters.  The Tyrell Corporation that built them has long been defunct, with a new corporation run by enigmatic founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) built upon it’s foundations with a line of even more obedient replicants.  K finds Sapper’s compound and promptly “retires” him as all blade runners are ordered to do.  However, upon investigating the compound, K finds a tree with a mysterious box buried within it’s roots, along with a mysterious date carved into the tree; 6-10-21.  This finding leads him down a road towards learning about the old Tyrell replicants who held a lot more secrets than what was thought before, and K must now search for the man with the answers he needs; former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Blade Runner 2049 could have gone awry in so many different ways, as many sequels to great movies do, and I’m happy to say that this one thankfully accomplishes what it needed to do.  This is a very well crafted and masterful sequel that will please any Blade Runner fan out there.  In many ways, I was stunned just how well they pulled it off.  Watching this movie almost immediately after viewing the original makes this new film feel like the second part of a larger whole, which is exactly what it needed to do.  It expands and deepens the world of the first Blade Runner, while at the same time feeling fully complimentary to it as well.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job matching the aesthetic and thematic elements of the original film.  It is not a cheap retread at all, but a fully realized expansion, and it’s every bit a dream come true for those who worship all the bold cinematic choices that the original is known for.  In many ways, it probably worked to this film’s advantage that it came so long after the original.  It needed for film-making technology to catch up to see the vision fully realized.  The original film was groundbreaking itself, with Ridley Scott firmly making a name for himself as a visual artist, but it was also grounded by the limitations of the period.  Here, visual effects have advanced to the point where the limits are boundless, but at the same time, the filmmakers here have shown great restraint, choosing not to overload on the effects but instead use them to broaden the scope of what was already there.  The movie also needed to wait for a filmmaker of Denis Villaneuve’s ilk to give to take on the project with a degree of seriousness.  The movie also benefits having the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, as it’s clear that he’s been refining this story out for decades, making sure that the next chapter in this story was worth the wait.

Now, while I am awed by the degree of success that this production managed to deliver on it’s promises and the remarkable skill put into it’s creation, there is an element to it that does keep it from being an overall great movie in my eyes.  And it’s something that more or less is tied to my feelings about the original as well.  While I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, it did have one fundamental flaw, and that’s pacing.  The original movie has pacing issues as well, but it managed to balance that out a bit more with a tighter edit (although the movie is notorious for having multiple edits, so it depends on which one you prefer).  Blade Runner 2049 runs at a staggering 165 minutes, which does make it feel more epic, yes, but also more bloated as well.  There are plenty of parts of this movie that do flow very well, and some of the slower paced scenes are welcome, if only for allowing us to soak in some of the incredible atmosphere of this film.  There are, however, plenty of moments in this new movie where the pacing drags out to a crawl which left me with a feeling of impatience at times.  One scene in particular, involving a wooden horse, is so drawn out that it actually left me rolling my eyes at one moment, almost begging for the movie to finally get one with it.  It may not be a big problem to some who are more absorbed into this world, but I just felt that some of these slower paced moments could have used a tighter edit.  In the end, it keeps the movie from really soaring in my opinion.  And again, it’s something that I felt the original had a fault with as well.  Blade Runner, I acknowledge is a great movie, but not among my own personal favorites.  It’s a movie that I find myself respecting more than loving, and that likewise is how I feel about 2049.

But there is a lot about the movie that I did love, and it mainly has to do with it’s exceptional production.  This is an Audible and Visual experience the likes that you’ll never forget.  This is by far the most beautifully shot film of the year, as well as one of the most dynamic sound edits I’ve heard in a long time.  The cinematography manages to evoke the look of the original Blade Runner, keeping it within the same visual realm, but elevates it with a far more dynamic color palette and richness to the textures.  It helps that the man behind the lens is none other than Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest working cinematographer today and one of the best of all time.  Most famous as a collaborator with Coen Brothers, Deakins has already worked well alongside Denis Villenueve before on equally brilliant work in Sicario.  Here, working with a more substantial budget, Deakins and Villenueve create some of the year’s most staggering imagery on screen, filling every frame with eye-catching wonder.  I just love the way that Deakins captures the hidden shadows of colossal structures appearing out of the hazy smog like great symmetrical monoliths holding up the sky.  He also makes his compositions feel in character with the original, helping to honor it’s legacy while at the same time pushing out it’s boundaries.  One scene in particular in a Vegas nightclub is a tour de force in visuals that represents just how much creativity Deakins and Villeneuve can find in this world they’ve become the caretakers of.  The musical score is also a bold statement onto itself.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the music takes it’s inspiration from the original Vangelis melodies and takes it a whole other aural experience.  This movie has a musical score that will quite literally rattle your bones.  It’s pulsating and overwhelming, but at the same time perfect for this movie.  I could even swear that one of the themes felt inspired by the sound of a revved up Formula 1 engine.  I don’t know why it sounded like that, but it’s indeed unforgettable and worthy addition to the whole experience.  It overall makes this a remarkable cinematic experience, even if the plot itself suffers from slow pacing.

The movie also has a stellar cast, who for the most part do a fine job.  It’s neat to see Harrison Ford once again step into another one of his iconic roles so many years later and not miss a beat.  Only a short time after revisiting Han Solo, we find him returning to Rick Deckard with the same amount of passion and care put into the performance.  Deckard is a much trickier character to pull of, given the complexities that he’s got to encapsulate, but Ford does an incredible job not just returning to what he’s done before, but also finding new shades to his persona that give so many more layers to the character.  He doesn’t show up until very late into the movie, but it works to the benefit of the film because it makes his appearance all the more important when it happens; and plus, it’s not really Deckard’s story this time.  Ryan Gosling instead carries much of the weight of this film, and he does so quite admirably.  Some might find him a little dry, but I liked the restraint in his performance, which feels spiritually in line with what Harrison Ford brought to his role in the original film.  Much of the supporting cast does a great job as well.  My own particular favorite among the newcomers was actress Sylvia Hoeks as one of the Wallace Corporation’s more deadly replicant models, going by the ironic name of Luv.  There is also a nice tender performance from actress Ana de Armas who plays K’s artificial intelligence “girlfriend” Joi, who appears to him as a hologram.  It’s a tricky kind of role, but one that she brings a surprising amount of emotion into.  The only weak link in the cast would be Jared Leto’s Wallace, who while not terrible, is also not really fleshed out that well.  It’s a problem when he needs to act as your film’s antagonist, and I’m sorry he does not hold nearly half the menace nor the presence of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from the original Blade Runner.  Apart from this, it is a well rounded cast that helps to elevate the movie as a whole.

So, much like the original Blade Runner2049 is a movie that I can recognize as a great cinematic achievement, while at the same time feel a tiny bit underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, it deserve every amount of praise that is going to come it’s way, and fans of the original are absolutely going to be satisfied by this one as well.  In that respect, this movie is an unequivocal triumph, because it took the daunting task of following up a widely regarded masterpiece with a bigger and louder sequel, and did so with in the best possible way.  It honors the original, while at the same time building upon it and expanding it into new horizons.  I can see why this movie is already being proclaimed as one of the year’s best.  The pacing problems were just too hard to forgive for me, and it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece in my eyes. I have the same reservations about the original as well, but feel that it holds up better because there were so much else about it that works.  I feel that Blade Runner 2049 should have been given another edit to tighten things up and remove some of the more bloated, unnecessarily drawn out moments.  Hell, more edits didn’t hurt the original in the long run, as Ridley Scott was better able to refine his masterpiece and find the version that both satisfied him artistically and appealed to audiences.  But, as it stands, the movie is still one of this year’s most impressive cinematic achievements, and one that will be deserving of it’s expected fan-base.  Few sequels, especially ones made so long after the original, ever come close to retaining the same level of quality as their predecessor, so the fact that this one was able to come so close is a bit of a Hollywood miracle in this day and age.  Keep in mind, I was born mere weeks after Blade Runner premiered originally in 1982, so this was a sequel that took my entire lifetime to become a reality and the fact that it turned out this good is a testament to the astounding hard work and seriousness that the filmmakers undertook in it’s making.

Rating: 8/10