Movie Review: Rings
By Ben Gruchow
February 7, 2017
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.