Movie Review: Rings
By Ben Gruchow
February 7, 2017

Sorry. You're just not scary anymore. Or ever.

The tale of Samara Morgan should function as a sort of litmus test for human gullibility. When you're confronted with a specter that crawls out of electronics and mangles its victims into horrifying new shapes, and the little girl behind the specter is on video basically stating that killing everyone who sees her is her M.O. in life (or in death), and you're still possessed by a mad desire to interpret her through the lens of a wounded creature that only wants to be understood and freed from its burden…well, it's probably not a good idea for you to pursue life goals involving negotiation, or diplomacy, or poker. By the time the object of your humanitarian mission is an urban legend known throughout the world for invoking fatality by eye contact, you probably should figure that someone's already unsuccessfully tried whatever reparative measure it is you're about to attempt.

This is a lesson lost on all but one of the human-shaped characters at the center of Rings, who react to news of a video containing abstract and morbid imagery with such disingenuousness that you start to lose faith in the efficacy of urban legend. In the process, they route the movie into a wan retread of the original American film in the series, 2002’s The Ring, which was itself a functional retread of a 1998 Japanese horror movie. It trades on the same imagery, reinvents and re-explains the central specter’s backstory long past the point where she ceases to be threatening, possesses thin and boring non-vengeful characters, and isn’t ever actually scary. The 2002 film wasn’t ever all that scary either, nor did it develop its characters beyond their basic reactivity to the plot; it did have a sickly, rainy evocative atmosphere and a creepy antagonist in Daveigh Chase’s murderous little ghost. If we grant the new film that it visibly takes place in the same visual universe as the earlier film, it still lacks the screen presence of Naomi Watts. Rings has in her place Matilda Lutz as protagonist Julia, and it is not a fair trade.

Having said that, the movie isn’t that bad - at least, not to the level that its dismal Rotten Tomatoes score might have you believe. It’s measurably better than last month’s The Bye Bye Man, at least, which failed at being scary and had the added disadvantage of being poorly made and horrendously acted. Rings is not poorly made, and Lutz is able to convey an effective simulacrum of human fear without uttering a word. Part of this is because of the correct facial contortions achieved necessary to form expressive and recognizable emotions, and part of it is because the actress is not very good when communicating verbally. She plays Julia, a teen at the dividing line (I’m guessing) between high school and college, and her boyfriend Holt, played by Alex Roe, is heading off to college as the movie begins. The screenplay isn’t terrifically clear about whether she’s too young for college or is going to one closer to home, or dropped out, or et cetera, and the distressingly clear reason why it’s not clear is because there’s no fleshing out of Julia on a personality basis beyond her romantic pursuit; the main character’s boyfriend gets a more consequential biography than she does.

Holt stops responding to her texts or phone calls shortly after leaving for school, and we start to deduce the reason why the moment Julia packs up and decides to track him down at his university, starting with Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki). We’ve already met Gabriel, in one of the movie’s several false starts; the other involves an imperiled passenger jet in flight. We meet Gabriel as he’s purchasing a secondhand VCR; when trying to get it to work (oddly, by attacking its paneling with a screwdriver), he accidentally hits a release catch and out comes a blank VHS tape. Ever the intrepid horror-movie character, he re-inserts the tape and we see the familiar imagery we remember from before: waves crashing, a woman brushing her hair, wells, etc.

These early scenes prologue a direction that Rings seems to be going in, one that I found intriguing. One of the fundamental technological changes that’s come about since the last movie in this series was released, in 2005, is the rise of mobile video and social media, and the subsequent shrinking of the world that’s happened as a result. You remember the rules of the videotape, right? This movie helpfully spells them out in the first scene in case you don’t: you watch, and after it finishes the phone rings, and a voice on the other end says, “Seven days.” A week later, you die. The only way to avoid this fate is to make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else. In the 2002 film, this macabre version of paying it forward seemed limitless in its application - and indeed, the alternate ending of the film depicted the videotape being “returned” to a video rental store (an image that’s positively, mournfully quaint). The 2005 film enjoyed this sense of scope too, albeit in a diminished way; the change in locale reminds us that perhaps things are not quite as limitless as they seem, and when this film opens in an unnamed Pacific Northwest town, we can rationally believe it's because everyone in Seattle has been murdered by Samara Morgan.

The ultimate idea here appears to be that some enterprising individual has found a way to circumvent the seven-days-and-you-die phenomenon: set up a revolving door of volunteers to watch the video and then have them pass it along to a “tail”, someone who’s been recruited to take the curse off of them. What happens to the tail? They die, I guess, although the movie doesn’t get that far in its development of the storyline. I spoil nothing by saying that Julia does locate Holt in fairly short order, and witness the video in fairly short order after that. This opens up another intriguing angle: that of format. In the original films, Samara traveled only by videotape, given the ability to burn her thoughts onto physical media. Now, though, copies of the video can be made and disseminated simply by a right-click and the Copy command. Our minds instantly flash forward to the horrifying ways this can be manipulated to spread Samara’s influence, and it’s too bad that the movie takes an hour to catch up to us. It’s still a neat development, this digital version of the evil tape and the collegiate research group hatched to outpace it.

Alas, once Julia sees the tape, she believes that Samara is speaking to her and that she is a kind of “chosen one.” Her “copy” of the video has new footage on it, buried within frames of the existing video - an exotic concept on something like VHS, sure, but guaranteed to herniate the neural passageways of digital-video enthusiasts (alternative rationalization: Samara only distributes the secret footage in H.265). And once we establish this plotline, we are off to the races with foreboding observations about ancient cultures and burial rites (did anyone in this movie ever stop to think how easy it is to cite an ancient culture’s postmortem beliefs without citing which ancient culture they’re talking about? Aren’t these people college students?), and soon Julia and Holt are on the road to Samara’s birthplace, to find out more about her mother, how she died, who’s responsible, etc. We know the drill, although in all fairness this movie mostly plays fair with its secret unveilings; if you put yourselves in the shoes of someone totally new to the series sitting down to start with this one, it’s possible to sort of appreciate the way the movie does tell a complete story, and doesn’t play its hand right away or all at once.

I mentioned that it trades on familiar imagery, and so it does; by movie’s end, we realize that we have not seen characters old or new behave in any particularly interesting or fresh ways. Samara still pops out of wells and TV screens in mostly the same way, grizzled old town hermits still speak with warning tones in their voice about taking visions with a grain of salt (this installment’s hermit is Burke, played by Vincent D’Onofrio; the more you’ve seen D’Onofrio’s work, the more this casting choice will tell you about where the movie is ultimately headed), and everything is adamantly familiar. It’s the type of inoffensive horror sequel where you know ahead of time far more about what it’s going to provide you than what you actually hope to gain from seeing it.

2 / 5