Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It Would Have Been a Much Shorter Post if I had Asked "Where Did They Go Right?"

I was going to do a bunch of mini-reviews, but have found that I have just too much to say about The Wicker Man, so we'll just have a lengthy rant about that instead.

Warning: spoilers about both this and the original version abound below, so if you want to go into either one with even a modicum of surprise waiting for you, best to skip this for now.

So, the biggest question that has to be asked about this laughable remake of the cult classic about a police officer who hunts for a missing girl among a secluded island community of pagans is this: where did they go wrong?

Man, where to start?


(1) The Protagonist: Early on it became obvious that Officer Edward Malus (Nicholas Cage) was going to be a totally different sort of character than the original film's Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), with Howie being a devout, humorless Christian, and Malus being a worldly, wisecracking smartass. On the one hand, I can appreciate the desire to change the characterization to set the two films apart, and in the end it turns out that the different characterization has more of an impact on the over all plot than you might think. Plus, they at least had the good decency to change the character name to solidify the break. But on the other hand, it was Howie's religious and moral outrage over the prevalence of paganism in this community that propelled the original, and removing that motivation definitely affected the film, mostly in a negative way. This was most evident during those sequences when they obviously cribbed Cage's dialogue directly from the original; anytime Malus would go from mocking the locals to stridently attacking their moral fiber, the cognitive dissonance would throw me right out of the film. When Sgt. Howie venomously called the room full of school girls a bunch of liars in the original, there was some weight behind it because it was obvious that this man held the Ten Commandments in high esteem and couldn’t even begin to fathom what would motivate these school girls to act in such a way; when Malus does the same thing, it does little other than elicit laughter over how idiotic the words sound coming out of his mouth.

(2) The Motivation: Both versions revolve around a cop obsessively searching for a little girl while an entire community stonewalls him, and in both films it’s all part of an elaborate ritual that culminates in the specially selected police officer's death. However, the reasons for the obsession, as well as the reasons for the cop's selection, are different in each. In the original, Howie searches for the girl for no other reason than that's the kind of man he is – a dogged, faithful upholder of law and order and morality, and it's that very nature that lends to him being selected, since it also resulted in him being a virgin. In the remake, Malus searches because (a) he let another girl die (more on that in a second) and (b) he's asked by an old girlfriend, who later reveals that (c) the missing girl is his daughter. So much for that whole "virgin" thing this time around, eh? In fact, it turns out that it's his fathering of the child that has marked him for death, since their sacrifice had to be "linked by blood." So, Howie: killed for his virginity; Malus: killed for his lack of it. In this case, it's probably more a matter of preference than anything else, but I hated the intrusion of the "jilted lover and lovechild" motif into the plot. Yes, it may have made the connection between Malus and the island more tangible than in the original, but it also made all the scenes where Willow is begging him for help but not giving him any information more ludicrous.

(3) The Car Crash: As pretty much anyone who saw the trailer for the remake knows, early on in the film Malus fails to save a mother and daughter from getting killed in a car wreck, and yet their bodies are never found. The film intimates that the whole car wreck was orchestrated to prepare Malus for the ritual, but never logically establishes how this was possible; you just get the reveal of them at the island during the end and are supposed to think "A-ha! It was all a plot!" with the hope being that you never stop to question "Wait, how did they rig it so that the semi would come and smash into them at just the right moment? And how did they escape from the burning, exploding car? And was any of this really necessary, since we already had the former lover/missing lovechild motivator to play on?" Senseless contrivance with little payoff.

(4) The Tavern Keeper: Don’t get me wrong: Diane Delano is a great comedic actress, and many times she was even able to add some pathos and dramatic weight to these roles, such as Bobbie Glass on Popular. But, great as she is, her acting style was totally incompatible with this film. Totally. There was not a single scene in which I bought her as a member of the island community, and that just made me sad. Horrible miscasting, and Delano deserves better. I'm sure this only bothered me and nobody else, but it bothered me quite a bit.

(5) The Religion: Whether it sprang from an attempt not to alienate pagan groups or an effort to do something different, I don't know, but the remake took the original idea of a modern day pagan culture and turned it into some odd bee-worshiping cult which cuts out the tongues of its men and uses them only for labor and stud purposes. And yet, they kept a lot of the trappings of the pagan motifs from the original, a incongruous mixture of ideas which struck me as incompatible with each other. I think my biggest problem is that the bee-centered culture was a bit too on the nose in terms of trying to show how different the islanders were; the original was much more unsettling by being much more subtle. As a matter of fact, I probably could have boiled this whole review down to the following: "Original -- subtle. Remake -- not so much." Oh, well, too late now; we’re in the home stretch.

(6) The "Danger": There's the subtle/unsubtle disconnect again. The original film didn't feel the need to cram a sense of danger down the audience's throat by manufacturing life-or-death situations; the whole film was a slow building of tension, culminating in Howie's infiltration of the May Day festivities and their brutal end. The remake, however, couldn't leave well enough alone, so it added little bits of "danger" to spice things up: Malus almost falling through a trap door; Malus getting locked in an underwater crypt; Malus stumbling into a bee hive and then, despite being highly allergic, running forward into more bee hives instead of back towards the road, tripping and falling four or five times along the way. Two out of the three were just Malus being a moron, and the other made no sense. Pointless filler, just pointless. I'm of two minds about the death of the airplane pilot; on the one hand, it helped show just how little regard the community had for life outside of themselves, especially when it was a male life; on the other hand, I was put off by the inherent cruelty of the island women. For me, the first film worked so well because it was obvious that the islanders were only going through these motions as a last resort, and felt no ill will towards Howie; in fact, they implied that he should feel honored to be offered up as a sacrifice. Their cheery countenances were a lot creepier than the capital-e Evil women of the remake who took perverse pleasure in using and abusing the males they encountered. Oh, and the three islanders popping up in animal masks in the distance and then popping down again during the pilot sequence? In the original, when Howie just finds his plane wrecked, it was creepy; here, following the discovery of a mutilated body, it was instead laughable due to how out of place it felt.

(7) The Final Act of the Film: Despite all of my previous complaints, I really didn't think this was a really bad film until we reached the final act and Malus's infiltration of the festival. Cage pulling a gun on Alma Garret from Deadwood to steal her bicycle made me roll my eyes; Cage punching out Diane Delano made me chuckle a little bit in a "wow, he didn't even stop to think about hitting a woman" sort of way; but it wasn't until Cage karate-kicked Leelee Sobieski into the wall that I realized that we were venturing into a whole new plane of unintentional comedy. I swear to you that I will vigilantly scour YouTube and MySpace for a video clip of this moment, because mere words cannot describe the shear over-the-top nature of the scene. It was pretty much all down-hill from there; honestly, do you think the director had any clue just how hilarious watching Nic Cage sucker-punch a succession women was going to be? And I'm sure some of you are thinking "That doesn't sound funny, that sounds horrible!" but you gotta trust me on this one: comedy gold. As funny as that was, though, it was nothing -- nothing, I say -- compared to Cage’s line readings during the inexplicable torture sequence at the end. The torture itself was bad enough, not in an "ooo, it's so graphic" sort of way, but in a "why the heck are they doing this?" sort of way. Hobbling him, I can almost understand, but slapping a mask on him and then funneling bees into it? What the frak? They’re getting ready to burn the man alive, do they really need to send him into anaphylactic shock and then stick him with an eppi-pen first? But I couldn't even get too outraged over the senselessness of it all, due to Cage's impassioned cries of "Oh, my legs! You broke my legs!" or "Ah, my eyes! The bees are in my eyes!" It's like the director was suddenly possessed by the spirit of Ed Wood. Pitiful, just pitiful.

In the end, I have to say that I'm glad I watched the movie, since it made me laugh more than some comedies I’ve seen recently (I’m looking at you, Robin Hood; Men in Tights); oh, how I would love to see the MST3K folks get a hold of this one. But, if you're looking for a well-written, intelligent, suspenseful horror flick, then you'd best look elsewhere, because there's nothing for you here.