Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.
The short version of this review if that The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty damn good film. I liked it. Now, I fell off from being a fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. The first one was okay, but very cartoonish. The first sequel is something I passionately hate, and have no desire to ever subject myself to it again. Thus, I never bothered with the third film. That made the news of a reboot immensely pleasing to me. I was very excited to see all that muck washed away, and allow a new filmmaker to start with a clean slate. Mainly, what I like about this movie is how character driven it is, and how well developed the emotional qualities of it are. Instead of a very self-pitying Peter Parker, we get one that feels like the character I’ve wanted to see, and is one that is highly enjoyable to invest myself in.
Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to OsCorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.
I want to start out with the tone of this film. Some may have labeled it a “darker” approach, but that is an incorrect term. This is a serious, dramatic approach to the character with substantive depth. However, that doesn’t mean it is not fun. In fact, this is a very fun movie that finally gives us the witty, charismatic Spider-Man that was sorely absent in the previous three films. There is a scene where Spidey to webbing a criminal to a brick wall, and the Web-slinger is spouting off the funniest wisecracks which never border on campy or cheesy. Spidey’s never been an intimidation type of hero like Batman or the Punisher. He uses his sharp wit and humor to throw his adversaries off balance, but most importantly, it shows that Peter Parker is having a lot of fun being Spider-Man.
The more dramatic tone is handled exceptionally well by director Marc Webb. The character is treated with love, respect, and integrity. The relationship between Peter and Gwen is very heartfelt, and never shies away from Peter’s understandable awkwardness. It makes the character endearing and likeable. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have solid chemistry making every loving moment magical. Of course, the emotional resonance for Peter goes deeper and further than this. When Peter loses loved ones in the film, it deeply penetrates through the screen. The connection and mystery surrounding his parents’ death is the linchpin of Peter’s story here. It’s what drives him forward through the narrative, and causes a lot of heartache and emotional pain for him. He’s sad, angry, and curious about it at different points in the film. Both Webb and Garfield make Peter’s pain strongly relatable and sympathetic. It pours out even stronger after what happens to his Uncle Ben, which is handled with similar circumstances as in the original comics.
Marc Webb and the screenwriters made some smart choices in presenting a similar yet slightly different origin for Spider-Man. Long standing events in the character’s origin still exist, but are simply given a different environment. Same general context, but presented in a way to not be carbon copies of what was done in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man. These sequences entirely retain the purpose and resonance they’ve always have, but we just get to see a different take on how they happen. For instance, Peter gets bitten by the genetically altered spider because he goes snooping around OsCorp seeking answers on his father. It’s not a pure chance that’s he’s at the lab. Specific actions are taken by Peter to place himself in that situation, and Spider-Man is born out of it. Again, these events are driven by character motivations. They are plot elements that link back up with one another and tangle up quite nicely.
I love the newly designed costume. Admittedly, I’m more of a general Spider-Man fan, not a die hard one. So, I felt that Spidey’s costume could use a little updating, and this fits the bill very well. The costume slowly comes together as Peter refines how he operates. I also love how the web-shooters come about. Sam Raimi decided to make them organic in his films because he didn’t think it was believable that Peter Parker could create an adhesive that some big corporation couldn’t invent. Here, it is invented by a big corporation – OsCorp – and Peter merely obtains a supply of the material. That’s a brilliantly simple solution. The mechanical shooters, however, are his creation.
The overall look of the film maintains that dramatic tone with a rich color scheme and respectably moody lighting. Cinematographer John Schwartzman really does a fine job giving weight and beauty to the dramatic character scenes, and plenty of rousing, exciting camera work to the action sequences. It looks like a big movie. As always, I only go see the 2D versions, but I can see a few sequences theoretically turning out rather impressively in 3D, especially the Spidey point of view shots when he’s web-slinging. There are plenty of dynamic and big shots in the action sequences to give your eyes a pleasant visual feast. Complementing that is James Horner’s gorgeous score. He’s done scores I’ve not cared much for, but he’s also done some wondrous work that I think highly of. He does an exceptionally strong job here giving the film both its poignant emotional moments and its big heroic themes. Marc Webb really pulled together all the right elements to encapsulate a cohesive tone overall.
And yes, Andrew Garfield is stellar in this role. I like his take on the character. He’s not some lowly geek with no spine. He’s much more modern as a teenager who has a good heart and the desire to stand up to the bully in Flash Thompson, but just doesn’t have what it takes to physically or confidently take a stand. He can be a little socially awkward here and there, but you can see his heart and charm shine through. Garfield brings out a fully dimensional character that I truly felt for throughout the movie. It’s a character journey where Peter has to come to grips with a lot of emotional struggles, and to grasp onto his responsibilities. He helped Curt Connors find the missing equation that allowed him to become this mutated menace, and Peter knows he has to clean up his own mistakes. As it has to be said, Garfield AMAZINGLY handles all these diverse aspects from the socially awkward to the heartfelt teenager in love to the emotionally hurting to the humorous wise cracker to the inspiring hero. He is truly a rock solid fit for this character, and a substantive actor who can carry this franchise for a long time to come.
Emma Stone is equally as good. She has talent to spare that makes an audience take investment in Gwen Stacy. She’s a loving, caring, well rounded character brought to textured life by Stone. She is beautiful and intelligent, making it no wonder why Peter Parker would be so fully taken by her. I know that, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is killed by one of Spider-Man’s villains, but frankly, with an actress of this quality and breadth of talent, it would be foolish to dispose of her in any soon-to-come sequel. Again, she has glorious chemistry with Andrew Garfield, and this film definitely takes its time to develop their loving relationship. I hope to see it grow and flourish in any sequels Columbia Pictures chooses to make.
I also very much liked what Denis Leary did with Captain George Stacy. Leary easily could’ve slipped into an area of comedy with his line deliveries, harkening to his role on Rescue Me with cynicism and such. However, he keeps it restrained. Leary has impressed me vastly with some dramatic roles in the past while also balancing humor such as in Suicide Kings. Here, he keeps Captain Stacy a respectable man with a serious, focused mind. He makes the character strong and pertinent as well as showing us some heart along the way. It’s very exceptional that so many characters are given noticeable development as the film progresses.
I even like how Flash Thompson is given some development. At first, he’s the usual hard ass bully muscling people around, but he’s given a few scenes where he softens a little. He expresses compassion for Peter’s loss, and even sort of kids around with him at the film’s end. That’s such an excellent touch to not make Thompson a one dimensional convenience. So many times, a bully is just a shallow foil for the hero to overcome. Here, we see that he is a human being with the capacity for being more than just a jerk. That’s very nice work by the filmmakers with excellent execution by actor Chris Zylka.
Greatly compelling in the role of Dr. Curt Connors is Rhys Ifans. He’s an intelligent character who slowly becomes more obsessed with his increasingly crazed machinations. Once he’s injected with that serum, it begins to change him both biologically and psychologically. Ifans goes from a fascinating, if distant character to much more unnerving and intimidating. It’s a rather subtle performance he puts in, never trying to go over the top. It entirely goes with the film’s general tone, and surely builds Connors up to being threatening as his psychological state becomes more unhinged.
Lastly with the cast we have Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker. I really, really liked them in these roles. Sheen conveys the feeling of a surrogate parent doing the absolute best he can to be as good as Peter’s own father. He’s compassionate and understanding, but also, stern when called for. With the limited screentime he has, he creates a character that can resonate with an audience through Peter’s perspective. Sally Field gives Aunt May a more modern sensibility than how the character is usually portrayed as some soft, grandmotherly type. Field still gives her vulnerability and compassion, but feels like a parent most can relate to. She has some spirit, humor, and inner strength that I very much admired.
I really just enjoyed how everything felt more contemporary here. Characters felt like products of the world we live in, and have realistic depth. It’s a long period of time before Peter Parker dons a costume in this because a lot of time is taken to develop the characters and the context of the world they inhabit. It all feels very rich and dimensional. This now feels like a film franchise that can have many layers to it that is not so action dependent. It can create a compelling story driven by the characters and their emotional states. Marc Webb definitely leaves the mystery about Peter’s parents open to be further explored and unraveled in another film or two. There is a single scene just after the start of the end credits featuring Dr. Connors speaking to this effect with an unidentified character. It’s a definite tease that keeps that storyline in the forefront of the minds of the audience. I also like how Norman Osborn is continually mentioned, but never shown. This sets up an unknown reveal of if and how the Green Goblin may enter into this franchise.
The visual effects are pretty good. There’s a lot of really good stuff, and some effects that could still be better. The Lizard himself can seem a tad lacking in the seamless realism. Granted, it’s difficult to make a nearly seven foot tall Lizard appear realistic, but I just felt that it didn’t always interact well with its real world surroundings. It could be a little cartoonish, especially when tumbling around with Spider-Man at times. However, it never soured the movie to me. Admittedly, the digital creation looks better in darker environments such as the sewers or nighttime exteriors, and that’s mostly where we see him. Thankfully, essentially everything with Spider-Man as a digital effect is practically seamless. I wasn’t so sold on it from the trailers, but in the film itself, I really can’t see any difference. The motion of the character remains consistent with realistic weight given to his movements. No loss of texture was evident to my eyes, either.
The action sequences tend to be very smart. It’s very much making great use of Spidey’s various powers, and the environments they are set in. I immensely loved the subway car scene where Peter is first discovering his powers, by accident. You see the Spidey Sense in action as he reacts instinctually to threats and showcases his speed, agility, and strength without even realizing what he’s doing. It’s also a rather funny sense as Peter unintentionally assaults some troublemaking subway riders. There is a sequence showing Peter being overwhelmed by these strong powers, but he slowly reigns them in as he gets more comfortable having them. It’s handled with some wit and humor along the way. More dire action scenes really demonstrate the great dynamic between the Lizard and Spider-Man. The former has the strength and size advantage, but that just forces Spidey to be more inventive and strategic in how he battles this foe. The climax of the film is very well handled entirely shying away from the worn out “damsel in distress” scenario, and going with something far more organic from the plot that has more dire consequences for the whole city of New York.
However, as I said, this is a character driven story, and the film doesn’t end two minutes after the action climax. It takes what time it needs to tie off the emotional and character threads that the film spent so much careful time developing. I really, really like that, and it’s qualities like that which really elevate this film for me. While I wasn’t astounded or floored by the film as a massively exciting experience, I found more value in that it was structured around character and the intent on building a deep, rich palette to draw upon for stories with more emotional depth and resonance than what was given to us previously. I can definitely see some people not quite liking this film so much as does feel like a 136 minute film with its more easy pace. It is a film that takes its time, but balances the drama with plenty of fun.
If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was the equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, then The Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins equivalent for this franchise. I give The Amazing Spider-Man high praise and a wholehearted recommendation. I was disappointed that The Avengers had such a weak plot and a totally stock villainous force with no emotional depth or character development. This is just the opposite as I came to care for practically every pertinent character on screen because the writing was so strong and the direction was very strong and deeply impressive. The story is injected with plenty of substance with beautiful chemistry from its romantic leads. It never gets lazy by falling into clichés, and is intent on being fresh and weighty with a nice sense of fun. The more I think of it, the more I love what this movie has to offer. I wholly believe it is worth your time to experience it. While it doesn’t have as much big action punch as The Avengers, I damn well enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man a hell of a lot more. It feels like a full, fleshed out film with a world of possibilities to explore in subsequent entries. I just hope most of the audience can see the value in it that I do because I really want to see more of this Spider-Man.