It’s been over a week now since Andy Muschietti’s IT has opened to renowned acclaim and become a national phenomenon, and with plenty of time to consider the matter, I think it’s time to shrug my shoulders and mildly proclaim: I don’t get it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t get IT. There’s not much to get there. It’s the laziest possible versions of the childhood tropes popularized by King’s writing and the original IT mini-series. It cherry-picks all the kid-sections from the source material (minus that one) and runs them through a blender without any of the thematic connecting tissue for the purposes of hooking us onto a sequel. I understand that part. What I don’t understand is the appeal.
Updated from the ‘50s to the late ‘80s because that’s an easier nostalgia sell right now, this version of IT follow the same basic premise as before. In the small town of Derry, Maine, seven bullied pre-teens led by stuttering Bill Denborough (Jaeden “Book of Henry” Lieberher) are terrorized by a shapeshifting supernatural being who comes to them in the form of their greatest fears, most often appearing as a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The kids form a group known as the Losers Club, featuring outcasts like the hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the incredibly annoying Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), and the sensitive and overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). While investigating the clown and trying to find a way to kill it, the crew also discovers girls – more specifically the one girl who will talk to them, 14-year-old Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a poverty-stricken sexual abuse victim who is also the butt of most of the town’s rumors. Fun times here in Derry.
The issue isn’t just that the characters are tropey stereotypes; that can be chalked up to the source material helping to invent said tropes. But they’re the broadest, laziest characterization of those tropes that one could possibly have. There is nothing about these characters which you haven’t already seen in a film made between 1986 and 1995. I realize that’s exactly what the producers were going for, but there’s a difference between emulating a tone and directly ripping it off with no original ideas or contributions. Stranger Things may have its pacing problems, but at least it actually plays around in the ‘80s-movie sandbox a bit.
The only character who isn’t horribly broad and flat is Bev, and that’s only because she’s too busy being heavily oversexualized. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too in the grossest ways here. Bev’s abuse is undoubtedly played as a horror, but also her source of power as she uses her “feminine charms” to influence not only the boys but also middle-aged men as this town is apparently full of pedophiles. Although the movie mercifully removes King’s original childhood gang-bang scene, it doesn’t keep from consistently alluding to Bev as the object of desire for all of the Losers and others.
The brazenness of Bev’s oversexuality is made worse by the relative toothlessness of the other token characters’ treatment.
It’s very odd that the movie features only one African-American child (Mike, played by Chosen Phillips), but refuses to acknowledge the racism inherent in his bullying. A movie all about childhood fears made in 2017 could definitely do something interesting with this topic, but this movie doesn’t. Instead, it decides that his outcast status is that he’s “home-schooled” and gives Mike basically no characterization beyond that. Like most of the film, Mike’s treatment is played safe to the point of absolute uselessness. Similarly, the Loser Club’s lone Jewish member, Stan, is never really bullied about being Jewish from his bullies. He does, however, receive plenty of berating about it from his friends. Mike and Stan are given no character moments, and other than being in the original material, there’s really no decent reason for them to be in the club – or the movie.
All this said, the biggest issue in this horror movie is the scares. Or rather, I should say “scare.” It’s the same one, paced the exact same way, with the same setup and rising action. Over and over again. Often done back-to-back with no breathing room in-between, the scares follow the same pattern endlessly, and once a scare becomes predictable, it ceases to be scary and proceeds to be boring. While I would never devalue a horror movie for failing to frighten me personally, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little bit of creativity and timing. Credit where it’s due, Skarsgård and the animations team manage to put together some unnerving physical movement, but even in its best moments this film manages to only achieve the performance level of that one tech demo Hayao Miyazaki hated.
But whatever I missed in this film, someone else must have picked up. To the film’s credit, it does succeed in being a pleasing experience for a willing audience. If you’ve got a theater crowd willing to give cheers and “hell yeahs” in triumph, IT gives them those opportunities. They’re not even unearned ones either, they just seem to come and go without follow-up. The appeal of IT seems to target primarily people who are happy seeing things that remind them of things they saw when they were younger. (Alternatively, people who haven’t seen those things at all yet. IT is a perfect movie for a 16-year old to sneak into.) But the tone is all there is, and even that feels phoned in. IT’s biggest sin is that it doesn’t bother to do anything with the tools that it has been given. If Pennywise fed on apathy instead of fear, then Andy Muschietti’s film would provide the perfect feast.
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