The King Is Dense

There's more to Stephen King's Dreamcatcher than will fit in its confusing cinematic adaptation

Lawrence Kasdan directs and co-writes (with William Goldman) Dreamcatcher,the latest addition to the Stephen King adaptation genre, currently at 74, including film and TV, and counting. Kasdan generates more suspense than scares -- the two are related but not identical -- and his only partial success with the material has a lot to do with some of King's particular techniques of story construction.

That is, in his longer novels -- and Dreamcatcher runs 900-plus pages in paperback -- King often packs in more essential plot material than can be accommodated in a feature of commercially viable length. Condensing, paring, and short-handing the story elements can be daunting, and despite the efforts of Kasdan and Goldman -- two masters at wrangling unwieldy source material into shape -- there is some awkwardness and confusion in the result.

The opening ten minutes or so deftly lets us in on some of the setup: We meet, one at a time, four long-time buddies who have some cleverly revealed abilities. They are all seemingly telepathic: Henry (Thomas Jane), a suicidal psychiatrist; Jonesy (Damian Lewis), a teacher; Beaver (Jason Lee), a carpenter; and Pete (Timothy Olyphant), a car salesman. Pete also has a psychic knack for finding things; Beaver is maybe precognitive; and Jonesy has an amazing memory.

Just your average psychic-alien-military-conspiracy-horror-suspense movie
Just your average psychic-alien-military-conspiracy-horror-suspense movie

The delineation of their powers is probably crystal clear to those who have read the book, including Kasdan and Goldman, who have presumably spent so much time with it that they don't realize it's not so crystal clear to the uninitiated. Are all four telepathic in general? Or are they just all in contact with one another, with Henry the only full-fledged mind reader? If they're all mind readers, what are the limits, distance and otherwise? Why do they seemingly fail to perceive outsiders' thoughts at crucial moments?

In any case, the four convene for their annual retreat into the woods at a remote cabin near where they grew up in Derry, Maine. They make initially vague references to a fifth, very special friend, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), who is at the center of their bond and their powers; a metaphorical dreamcatcher, if you like. Some of this is explained in a childhood flashback early in the film, with a second flashback later on explaining more.

This would be enough mystery for most writers, but not for King. Soon -- in what may be a related development -- the cabin and most of the countryside are overrun by squiggly, worm-like alien larvae that can develop into huge phallic-vagina dentata combo-platter creatures. These creatures are independent organisms some of the time, body-inhabiting mental entities other times, and apparent shape shifters yet other times -- depending on what the plot and the shock effects call for at the moment.

Even that's still not enough plot for King, so he then brings in a military plot to juice things up even more. Col. Abe Curtis (Morgan Freeman) is the top dog in a secret task force that has been battling these alien invaders for decades. He's about to turn the reins over to his protégé, Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore), but the methods of cleaning up this current Maine infestation may drive them apart.

Despite all the expositional problems, Kasdan manages to make the film's two and a quarter hours fly by pretty quickly. The movie's shifting point of view is partly the product of crosscutting among different action threads -- a technique for generating suspense that goes back at least a century. With all the technical advances at a modern filmmaker's disposal, it's still as reliable a strategy as anything that's been developed since.

Speaking of technical advances, Dreamcatcher is accompanied in theaters by the short The Final Flight of the Osiris, one of the Animatrix films conceived and written by Andy and Larry Wachowski as a supplemental part of the Matrix world. Directed by Andy Jones (one of the animation directors for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), this animated work fills in a crucial part of the story in between the first Matrix and the upcoming The Matrix Reloaded. The title alone is a bit of a spoiler.

The Final Flight of the Osiris is a swift, exciting 11 minutes. It also is a demonstration of just how close computer animation is getting to generating completely believable virtual actors. At moments, the technique is so good that you're almost sure they've snuck in live-action footage. The rest of the time, the characters look slightly too smooth, as though they frequent Michael Jackson's fleet of plastic surgeons.

 
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