There’s a single interesting idea floating around in Rings, the latest sequel in the franchise that turned dripping wet black-haired Japanese ghosts into mainstream Hollywood horror. “What if,” the film asks, “it was possible to scientifically quantify mind-numbing terror, turn it into harmless data, and use it for mechanical ends?”
That’s a fairly heady concept, and in an age that’s all about mapping everything from individual great white shark travel patterns to the human genome, it feels particularly knowing and relevant. Human curiosity and confidence have been battling superstition since the dawn of time, and stories about places where the two conflict can be potent metaphors for the way humanity is constantly learning that no amount of knowledge can entirely fix the problem of fear. But Rings is a phenomenally distracted film, and it can’t focus on any one concept for too long. The scientific-method plot is the most intriguing idea that gets dumped by the roadside, but it’s far from the only one.
Case in point: The movie starts with three separate openings, all of which drop new characters on the audience without any sense that the story cares about any of them. A Final Destination-esque sequence aboard an airplane focuses on a man who’s watched the cursed videotape from Gore Verbinski’s 2002 horror hit The Ring (or the original Japanese version of the film, 1998’s Ringu, or the 1991 Kôji Suzuki novel that spawned the whole series). As the previous iterations of the story established, exactly seven days after someone watches the videotape, the drowned, vengeful ghost Samara pops out of a TV screen and kills them — apparently even if they’re cruising at 10,000 feet. Then the film shifts to an estate sale, where a biology professor named Gabriel (The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki) accidentally acquires the videotape, while a gothy, sullen college student named Skye (Aimee Teegarden) hangs out nearby. And then it moves on to dopey young couple Holt (Alex Roe) and Julia (Matilda Lutz), who are enjoying a last morning in bed before he leaves for college and she sits around moping in his absence.
It’s a long, dreary drag waiting for these plotlines to come together, and Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez and his screenwriters don’t spend the intervening time on anything good. (One of the credited writers is Akiva Goldsman, who at this point has a stunning number of incoherent, awful scripts to his name, including A Winter’s Tale, Batman & Robin, Insurgent, and The 5th Wave.) Julia eventually emerges as the film’s protagonist, but the filmmakers can’t be bothered to establish even the most rudimentary, fundamental things about her, like why she’s staying home while Holt heads to college. (Is she still in high school? A penniless orphan? Interested in a field that doesn’t require a degree? Secretly a cardboard-cutout standee Holt bought from his local cineplex?) Skye, similarly, is a victim in search of a background, and the vagueness of her relationship to Gabriel and his experiment is needlessly distracting. She adds nothing to the story but some extra screaming.
Eventually, though, after an inexcusable amount of narrative stalling, Julia learns Holt has fallen in with Gabriel, who’s studying Samara’s videotape by getting his students to watch it for extra credit. As established in The Ring, anyone being stalked by Samara can transfer her curse to someone else by copying the tape and passing it along. Gabriel has turned the tape into a digital file for easy distribution, and established a system where everyone who watches it has a “tail,” who takes over the curse before the final, fatal moments. But when Julia shows up at Holt’s college, a series of psychic visions tell her that Gabriel’s system is breaking down. (Hard to believe, since Gabriel is apparently researching the tape with all the scientific rigor of Steve Rubell running Studio 54 circa 1978. His cavernous, crowded, underlit college lab is halfway between an underattended rave, and the set of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners.) Samara is apparently pissed that Gabriel has institutionalized her make-a-copy workaround and no one is dying, so she’s evolving her supernatural murder methods for the digital age. Soon, there’s a new creepy digital video and a new set of locations to discover and portentous clues to track, copycatting the original Ring plot.
It’s understandable that Gutiérrez and his team would want to mimic the first Ring movie as much as possible, since it’s become an iconic horror film. But it’s also been extensively copied, echoed, and parodied since 2002, and familiarity has undercut much of the visceral horror of Samara’s flickering, unnatural presence.
That’s one reason the scientific-inquiry plotline is so smart: It comes at the horror from a new, self-aware angle, as if attempting to acknowledge all the analysis, deconstruction, and imitation around The Ring. But the filmmakers have no idea what to do with this storyline, and they just let it peter out in favor of turning Rings into yet another low-res copy of the first film. It’s an inferior take on a lot of other significantly better horror movies, too. The Ring came to the idea of a deadly curse passed on like an STD long before It Follows, but It Follows finds effective ways to explore the dread weight of that idea, where Rings just tosses it onscreen and moves on. One late sequence in Rings plays like a much less scary five-minute version of Don’t Breathe, and a post-shower sequence echoes the Korean Ringu follower Ju-On: The Grudge and its American remake. And Rings dabbles in the recent horror obsession with victimized women locked up by unpredictable, dangerous men (seen over the last few years in 10 Cloverfield Drive, Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina, Room, Morgan, and Split), but can’t even stick with that plot long enough to tell the audience what happened to the woman in question.
Rings also can’t stick with a tone for long. The film seems to be shooting for lurid, heavy dread, but it keeps puncturing the mood with inadvertent hilarity, including an attempt to wring stomach-churning horror out of lines like “The copied file is bigger than the original file!” The monotonal performances (especially from Roe, who was equally generic in The 5th Wave) don’t inject any humanity into characters that are already barely one-dimensional. Gutiérrez punches up the jolts by adding punishing sound effects whenever ordinary objects suddenly get close to the camera — at one point, an umbrella opens with a startling sound effect worthy of the shower scene in Psycho, and the sound of a coat being pulled off a hanger is similarly punched up to jump-and-scream levels. When a film has to go for such cheap, unworthy scares, it’s a bad sign that it doesn’t have anything smarter or more unnerving going on.
And that’s particularly baffling given that there are so many undercooked plot hooks bobbing around in this undercooked mess of a movie. There are three credited writers on the screenplay, but Rings feels like they wrote it in separate rooms, without consulting each other at any step along the way. Extra characters appear and disappear throughout the film. Mysteries are unfolded, but never concluded. Meaningless or nonsensical creepy things happen, like rain falling upward and a live fly crawling out of a lit joint, but none of those portents are ever relevant. And the movie’s violent climax depends on an unexplained act of random magic.
The biggest problem with all of this is the overwhelming sense of apathy the film brings to almost everything. There’s no conceptual focus, no single character whose fate seems to matter, no interest in tying random events together in a coherent way, and certainly no investment in resolutions or payoffs. The strange-science angle that briefly suggests a new spin on The Ring, with Gabriel supposedly investigating the afterlife in the most haphazard, disorganized, irresponsible way possible, winds up being one of an entire shoal of red herrings. In the end, it’s just a wonder that the filmmakers decided to make him a biology professor. Anyone stuck in this incoherent babble of a film would be much better off researching chaos theory.