The Big Chiller

Mission Creepy: Morgan Freeman, right, shares his E.T. obsession with Tom Sizemore in Dreamcatcher.Photo: Doanne Gregory

No doubt Dreamcatcher will be branded a sell-out by critics who forget that its director, Lawrence Kasdan, not only made The Big Chill and Body Heat but also wrote or co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and two Star Wars features. Kasdan could indeed be looking for a commercial hit to counteract his last film, the puttery, benign Mumford, and certainly it’s easier to get movies made from Stephen King novels featuring extraterrestrials than to find financing for the small-scale, character-based dramas Kasdan specializes in. Still, those movies haven’t always been marvelous, and Dreamcatcher at least has a verve often missing from Kasdan’s work. It’s a bumpy thrill ride.

I’ve not read the 600-plus-page King novel on which the film is based, but presumably Kasdan and co-screenwriter William Goldman have crammed too much of it into their movie. It’s a voluminous mess, perhaps intentionally so—the filmmakers try to please everybody by throwing in Big Chill–style camaraderie, icky monster stuff, touchy-feely occultism, goofball farce, and military-combat explosions. It’s about four lifelong buddies linked by an event in their childhood when they rescued from bullies an odd, reclusive boy nicknamed Duddits (played as an adult by Donnie Wahlberg). Duddits returns the favor by blessing the boys with varying supernatural abilities. As is often the case in King tales, such abilities have made those who possess them outcasts.

Near the beginning of the movie, Henry (Thomas Jane), a psychiatrist; Beaver (Jason Lee), a carpenter; Pete (Timothy Olyphant), a used-car salesman; and Jonesy (Damian Lewis), who has mysteriously survived being hit by a car, convene in a remote hunting cabin in the Maine woods to celebrate twenty years of friendship. (This is the Big Chill part.) Very soon, strange things happen: Stray hunters turn up with ghastly red rashes; military helicopters zoom through the snowy skies blaring the news that the entire area is under quarantine. And then the E.T.’s—slithery, giant-size eels with rows of fangs—burst forth.

At its most ponderous, Dreamcatcher is about how these guys use the alien attack to become heroes once again, as they were when they defended Duddits. They come to accept their powers, however inconstant, as gifts rather than stigmas. King movies often have the most resonance when they work on dual tracks: Carrie, for example, was a great horror picture as well as the primal high-school-wallflower revenge fantasy; the naturalism and the supernaturalism supercharged each other.

But in Dreamcatcher, the sentimental band-of-brothers material, which is the film’s emotional core, is also its weakest aspect—perhaps because we don’t get to know much about these men before they start being walloped and splattered. Their comradeship isn’t nearly as interesting, or as much fun, as the creatures-from-another-planet sequences, which are like B-movie gross-outs on an A-movie budget. The goo and the glop run pretty thick in these scenes; the people unfortunate enough to be inhabited by the monsters get their innards blown sky-high. There’s a gee-whiz quality to this yuckiness that derives from pulp comics and cheapo horror flicks and is reminiscent of the bad-boy gooniness in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! There is also, on one occasion, a sequence of almost ecstatic beauty, when we see an entire squadron of forest creatures scamper in retreat through the winter squall.

Morgan Freeman plays Colonel Curtis, the vigilante military man who has spent twenty years hunting extraterrestrials, and it’s difficult to know how to read his character: Part Captain Ahab, part General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove, he’s so obsessed with catching aliens that he’s willing to slaughter perfectly healthy U.S. citizens in order to do it. Kasdan seems to want Curtis to be a cartoon meanie who is also a nightmare vision of American warriorism run amok, but the combo doesn’t really work; it’s tough to take in all these anti-military jibes when we’re focusing on a creature that looks like a cross between a giant pin cushion and a rutabaga mangle some poor slob. It would take a filmmaker of truly astonishing versatility to harmonize all these disparate tones, and Kasdan, for all his free-wheeling swagger here, has a fairly conventional imagination. But there are moments in Dreamcatcher when he gives you the giggles and the creeps at the same time, and that’s not easy to do.

Japón (at Film Forum), a first feature by the Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, takes place in the remote, echo-chambery canyons and villages of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. A distraught artist (Alejandro Ferretis) has moved there to do away with himself, but he lodges with an old widow (Magdalena Flores) whose decency inspires him to live.

For a while, with Japón’s interminable, wordless traveling shots and widescreen nature panoramas, I thought I was watching Gus Van Sant’s Gerry all over again. Nothing is as tedious as tedium in Cinemascope. But the film takes hold of you as it goes along. It slows down, often to the point of abstraction. Reygadas has an impressive eye for otherworldly landscapes and an impressive ear, too—the faraway squeals and barks and rooster crows in that canyon are like obbligatos punctuating the celestial silences. Clearly, he has been influenced by Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky, who also favored the slow burn of stasis.

Reygadas is both a sophisticate and a primitive: He sets up his film as a religious allegory, with the nameless painter as a kind of suffering Christ and the old woman—whose name is Ascen, as in Ascension—as his redeemer. He puts Bach and Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack. And yet he genuinely believes in the goodness of those who, like the old woman, are rooted in the earth. This agrarian metaphysics would be excessively sentimental except that Reygadas has a feeling for the wind-etched faces of his cast, many of them nonactors from the village, that is deeply poetic. He understands the loneliness of people isolated in the wide world.

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan; written by Kasdan and William Goldman; starring Morgan Freeman and Donnie Wahlberg.

Directed by Carlos Reygadas.

The Big Chiller