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Dreamcatcher   C

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Writers: William Goldman, Lawrence Kasdan (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Timothy Olyphant, Donnie Wahlberg.

Review by Rob Vaux

Consider for a moment the works of Stephen King. The self-proclaimed "Big Mac and fries" of the literary world has developed an unmistakable auteurial stamp that he ceased deviating from some time ago. From the horror novels that made his name to more so-called serious fare like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the tropes and themes which define him appear again and again: the links between the children we were and the adults we grow into; the power of bullies and the way they never really go away; leaps of faith taken by doubting believers. His best works blend those elements into a marvelous symmetry, but lately, the mixture has caused problems. To cover up, he relies on his seductive prose style, which can engross us for a time, but often falls short as the story develops. Such novels are invariably frustrating experiences because they promise so much without delivering. And yet since they're King's words, they keep us coming back for more. No other author can so overwhelmingly compel us to stick around for so many crappy payoffs. He baits his hooks as no other, and the first 100 pages or so of any King novel hold us mercilessly in their thrall. What happens afterwards, however, has become much less reliable.

Now consider Dreamcatcher, the latest in a never-ending series of King adaptations. It has a pair of its own auteurs at the helm -- writer William Goldman and writer/director Lawrence Kasdan -- but they have apparently focused their efforts on channeling their predecessor rather than charting their own course. The result is a decidedly mixed blessing. Though supposedly altered significantly from the source material, Dreamcatcher certainly feels more like King than many more faithful adaptations. Indeed, out of 40-plus King-based movies, it may have best captured the essence of the man's work. Unfortunately, that's not an entirely good thing.

The first 45 minutes are gangbusters. We meet a quartet of childhood friends who save a retarded boy from a group of sadistic older boys, and through him become imbued with a strange psychic bond. We see them aged into unhappy grown-ups, struggling with their demons and yet still connected by their shared-yet-unspoken mental powers. The early scenes are fascinating, and Kasdan's knack for interpersonal relationships serves him well here. He also develops a nice visual motif -- a "mental warehouse" representing one character's mind and all the information stored therein -- and the dialogue between the quartet reflects King's unique sense of the vernacular. The questions about their abilities pull us naturally forward as they gather for an annual hunting trip in the Maine woods, leading to some brilliant foreshadowing of the (presumably) terrifying dangers to come.

Then, like too many of King's other yarns, it starts to slide apart. The threat quickly reveals itself as an alien invasion: ill-defined monsters promising to destroy civilization. They're tied into the foursome's abilities somehow, but it's an awkward fit that only grows worse as the film goes on. Morgan Freeman appears, playing a crazed army officer and spouting military gibberish so ridiculous that you scarcely believe he consented to speak. Yet we hold on, convinced that this is all leading somewhere. So skillful is Kasdan's direction and so well does he guide us along that it's not until the final third that we realize how far we've veered off course. Helicopter gunfights, creeping fungus from outer space, and an alien called "Mr. Gray" who speaks through his possessed hosts with an English accent... all of it passes our increasingly skeptical sensibilities with the assurance that we'll come out clean the other side.

Certainly, there's plenty of good stuff to serve as a distraction. Dreamcatcher takes great delight in rattling King's favorite horror chains (fear of sitting on the toilet, for example), and his themes of friendship and trust, while shopworn, still hold a certain power. The cinematography is breathtaking (with British Columbia filling in for the woods of Maine), and ill-defined or no, the aliens themselves are very scary. Scary aliens go a long way in a movie like this. Such diversions combine with the fading power of the opening to keep us on board, even as the bottom slowly drops out from under us.

Until the finale.

Our hopes, our misplaced desires and the wonderful, wonderful setup all vanish beneath a horrendous mishmash of a resolution. A phalanx of Hollywood clichés overwhelms us in a rush -- holy fools, stupid bad guys, over-the-top special effects, deus ex machina run amok -- and in that horrible moment, the film's massive failings become crystal clear. The letdown is all the more painful for the better elements that led us this far, the disaster heightened by the lost potential fading away. That, unfortunately, is the unseemly price for its earlier pleasures.

In some sense, it's unfair to cite King for what transpires here. Other people put Dreamcatcher on-screen and they, not he, should reap the fruits of their labor. But so much of it hearkens back to King's novels that it's difficult not to interpret the film through them. In that sense Dreamcatcher is unique among its contemporaries, even honorable in a weird way. This is his work. Unmistakably. Incontrovertibly. No matter what changes were made between novel and screen, it all fits his style -- good and bad alike. Quickie B-list adaptations tend to use the name as a selling point (Stephen King's Night Flier), while bigger productions like this one eschew such cheap promotional tactics. But in this case, an exception could have been made. Kasdan's at the helm, Warners is holding the purse strings, but for better or worse, this is Stephen King's Dreamcatcher. Be sure you know what you're buying when you walk in the door.

Review published 03.23.2003.

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