Thursday, September 14, 2017

Zaki's Review: It: Chapter One (2017)

I was all of ten years old when I saw the two-part TV movie adaptation of Stephen King's It. Starring Tim Curry as the titular creature, a.k.a. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, alongside a whole host of TV-familiar faces like Richard Thomas, Tim Reid, Annette O'Toole, and John Ritter,  It first aired on ABC in fall of 1990 as one of those marquee "Sweeps Week" events so common back then. On reflection, I'm not sure if it was a childhood unease with clowns that made the miniseries so effective, or if the miniseries was so effective that it retroactively instilled an unease of clowns in me.

Either way, it sure did a number one me, permanently embedding itself in my still-developing brain even after only a single viewing (I revisited it for the first time just last week), and when word came that Warner Bros. was developing a cinematic spin on the Stephen King best seller, I was more than a little curious to see if anything could top the sight of Tim Curry in clown makeup lurking beneath a sewer grate, his teeth sharpened to feast on little kids just like me. Well, It version 2.0 is here, and it finds its own vein of terror to mine that's just as rich as its predecessor.

The story, set in 1989 (just one year before the "present day" portion of the miniseries was set) begins with young George Denbrough meeting an unfortunate fate at the hands of demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) in the sewers of Derry, MN. With George's older brother, the stuttering, fourteen-year-old Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) overcome with grief and unwilling to accept his little brother's death, he and his band of friends attempt the solve the mystery of Derry's past while preventing any further deaths.

Despite the fact that I've obviously left most of those youthful fears behind me, it's fascinating to me how much the new movie evoked the same sense of impinging dread in adult Zaki that the miniseries did for li'l Zaki without being "scary" in quite the same way. The effectiveness of King's story rests on the particular void that pre-teens occupy in the social hierarchy -- old enough to have a sense and awareness of the dangers all around them, but too young to be taken seriously by others about those dangers.

The Andy Muschietti-directed film (which was at one time earmarked to be helmed by True Detective's Cary Fukunaga -- who still retains a screenplay credit -- and has spent nearly as much time wending its way through Hollywood's GI tract as this year's other King adaptation), packs in its share of jump scares, which either or aren't effective depending on one's personal tolerance, but it also benefits from a compelling cast of characters who feel fully developed in their own right and are portrayed by an appealing ensemble of young actors who feel like the film's true discovery.

The main characters -- the so-called "Losers" are a who's-who of '80s "kid gang" tropes (even though this portion of the book and miniseries was set in the '50s). There's wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), mild-mannered Stan (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), portly new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and loner Mike (Chosen Jacobs). Picked on by their fellow teenagers and ignored by adults, it's their connection to one another will become the key to overcoming the encroaching evil of the nightmarish creature that haunts their days and nights. 

The main distinction between the previous production and this one is the decision to split King's voluminous story into two distinct halves, making this the first of a proposed inevitable two-volume saga, the second half of which will fully take place in the here-and-now. This approach offers its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it gives the proceedings a bit more breathing room for the story to unfold. A potential debit is that it unfolds in an entirely linear fashion, and as such loses the past-present context that was at least part of the appeal of the earlier iteration.

Working in favor of this updated adaptation is that these youngsters are just as good of performers as their counterparts in the previous version. While I can't think of a bad performance in the bunch, Lieberher and Lillis are particular standouts. On the adult side, Skarsgard is a suitably eerie, unnerving presence as Pennywise. While the clown makeup does a lot of the heavy lifting, he has an inflection that's pretty darn creepy. I don't know that he'll replace Curry in my mind, but then again, I'm not ten-years-old anymore. (Though, seriously folks, don't take your ten-year-olds to this.)

If I give the impression that I like the original more than this, that's not my intent. Each is effective in its own way, but it's important when watching this current film to remember that it's just one half of the story. As such, any attempt to review this entry is inherently hogtied by the knowledge that -- even as things come to a serviceable enough conclusion here -- we still need to wait a little while to see how they filmmakers will really wrap it all up. As it stands, this initial chapter draws you in, establishes the universe, and gives us a handful of compelling characters with interesting quirks while setting up a lot of questions that still need answers. It is good at what it does. Let's see what it does next. B

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