Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher is a neat film, and that really is the right word: neat. Not mind-blowing. Not memorable. Not good. Just epically ridiculous enough to be loopy fun.
In fact, it's the darndest B-flick in many a Friday, an unwieldy-and-overlong, very-cheesy, rainy-Saturday, just-you-and-dad-hit-the-movies, aliens-invade-Maine sorta flick. Nothing out of sorts for those dry patches of March, or for Hollywood, of course.
What's curious is its pedigree: Dreamcatcher arrives via a 600-plus page Stephen King novel co-adapted by William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and All The President's Men, and an A-list filmmaker better known for soul-searching yuppies than pod-hatching extraterrestrials resembling saber-toothed hotdog buns.
No, hold on: They look like killer flatworms with those googley plastic eyes that get glued to sides of clam shells and rocks and sold to tourists. Either way, perhaps you're thinking: Sounds like nothing new, but why is Lawrence Kasdan involved?
Some history is in order: Kasdan got his start in these parts. He grew up in Detroit, studied filmmaking at the University of Michigan, then launched his career with a pair of first-rate popcorn pictures: He wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. So there is popcorn precedent here. But as a director, Kasdan made his name with The Big Chill, Body Heat, and The Accidental Tourist, sometimes brilliant, often stiff, prestige pictures.
Has it gotten so bad in franchise-mad Hollywood that a talent like Kasdan, unable to push a serious film for adults through the studio pipeline, has become the directorial equivalent of a starving coyote, wandering out of the wilderness to forage for scraps?
Maybe. But people have misconceptions about B-movies. No. 1: B-movies are bad. That's generally true, but more often they have an imagination and verve missing from more serious-minded movies. No. 2: B-movies are cheap. B-movies that go straight to video are cheap; your average studio film today (Tomb Raider, Jurassic Park) is B-movie material on an A-budget. No. 3: B-movies are not ambitious. B-movies tend to bury their pretensions beneath goofy muck.
And No. 4: B-movies are not worthy of real filmmakers. Kasdan reveals a surprising long view of movie history here. He justifies himself by acknowledging a truth that many baby boomer directors distance themselves from: that the films they remember most fondly involved aliens or bad acting, or both. I'm thinking movies like Invaders From Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These were not upstanding or close to perfect, but they're great. Kasdan's films tend to give off the whiff of a director embarrassed by his pretense. But Dreamcatcher, and the off-the-rails wit of Stephen King, has given him the freedom to goof off, to have fun. It's the most alive he's been since Silverado.
This is an insane movie that makes almost no sense, and takes on too much - Kasdan, ultimately, has to include Big Themes like sacrifice - and runs 40 minutes too long, but it's also pseudo-'50s monster movie cool made without apology. How else can you explain the scene where Jason Lee sits on a toilet-seat cover, holding it down like his life depends on it. Beneath him come violent thumps. He's deep in the Maine woods with three buddies, just relaxing when a hunter with a red rash stumbles in. He goes to the bathroom and expels a long slithery beast, and Lee, a real bad actor, hops on the lid.
Now ask yourself: Toothpicks are on the floor before you. Do you stand up to get one, or keep the lid down? If your answer is “Sit tight,” you are not in Dreamcatcher. Did I mention Lee and his three lifelong friends are psychic? That there's a huge snowstorm? That it includes a Dr. Strangelove-like military man (Morgan Freeman with bushy eyebrows) whose homicidal actions are explained with: “Colonel Curtis has gone insane from hunting aliens for 25 years”? Dreamcatcher was King's first book after he was hit by a minivan on a country road in Maine in 1999. If his life flashed before his eyes, he got it down on the page. The story is an amalgamation of classic King plots and themes, starting with the telepathic rage of Carrie and giving it the snowy setting of The Shining.
I didn't read King's book, but my guess is Kasdan was faithful, maybe too faithful. It feels as if he can't bear to drop one plot point, or one literary conceit. Hence this plot: Four friends rescue a handicapped classmate named Duddits from bullies; scenes of kids strolling along train tracks that could be straight out of Stand By Me. Flash forward 20 years and they are telepathically linked. Their cabin in Maine becomes ground zero for an alien invasion. Coincidence? The aliens fan out and the army moves in and gets macho. Bodies are snatched, and the friends try to become the heroes they once were.
The red-headed one, Jonesy (Damian Lewis), becomes host to an alien, who controls his body and half of his mind. We know this because he does a Jim Carrey-like routine: When he talks with his standard New England accent we know it's Jonesy, when he speaks with a British accent, we know he's an evil alien. Why British? Good question.
But then what significance does the title item, a Native American totem, have to the story? No idea. How come the plot hinges on whether an alien can slip one alien worm into the water supply when they have been visiting the planet for decades and presumably have had plenty of previous chances? Did I mention the scenes that take place in Jonesy's brain? It's represented by a big library full of files, and the real Jonesy must race against time within his own brain to - oh, just forget it. This thing is nuts.
But Kasdan, and Goldman, who adapted King's Misery and Hearts in Atlantis, has a love for all things King: the use of song lyrics, the pop culture riffs, the raunchy bits, the bathroom gags, corny sayings like “That's the blue ribbon baby!” And of course, all those Boston Red Sox caps. Dreamcatcher is a cozy shambles, and it would take a filmmaker more talented than Kasdan to whip such riotous tones into shape. He pulls off one scene of genuine beauty, when we see hundreds of deer, bears, and rabbits beating a quiet retreat through a blizzard. The rest isn't nearly as fun as its lurid thrill of icky alien eels scampering across a Maine field, or monsters rising up to full height, moments Kasdan could have lifted off the cover of a cheap novel. As they say back east: wicked cool.