"Dreamcatcher" is not only based on a Stephen King novel, the first he wrote after his near-fatal 1999 accident; the experience of watching it also uncannily duplicates what it feels like to read one. Which is sometimes, but not always, a good thing.
As directed by Lawrence Kasdan, "Dreamcatcher's" science-fiction story of a group of childhood friends, now all grown up, in whose hands is placed the future of the planet is told with the same ungainly mixture of tones and sensibilities that characterizes King's books.
"Dreamcatcher" on both screen and page is all over the map, managing to be simultaneously jokey and scary, sentimental and ruthless, tediously everyday and grotesquely out of the ordinary. There's only one reason you don't throw your hands up and move on, and that's because King has a gift for making us want to turn the page, to see what happens next.
Sharing writing credit with Kasdan, veteran King adapter William Goldman ("Misery," "Hearts in Atlantis") has been able to transfer that compelling quality to the screen. No matter how often parts of "Dreamcatcher" make you wince or turn your stomach or both, you are not about to leave without finding out what happens next.
"Dreamcatcher" inevitably pares down King's gargantuan story (882 pages in paperback), in the process losing much of the significance of the title object, a Native American charm that captures nightmares. But the basic outline of the plot remains the same in the filmed version.
The story's four protagonists (played by actors who are not household names) feel trapped and listless as adults. Suicidal psychiatrist Henry (Thomas Jane), chatty carpenter Beaver (Jason Lee), college professor Jonesy (Damian Lewis) and frustrated car salesman Pete (Timothy Olyphant) all find themselves marking time in what they call an "SSDD" existence, roughly translated as same stuff, different day.
What unites these men is their connection with another childhood friend, the mentally challenged Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg). As kids, the guys saved him from a pack of sadistic bullies, and as a result they all seem to have been given a kind of telepathy that allows them to read minds and sense some of the future.
These talents come in handy during their annual hunting getaway in the Maine woods. The group gets split up, and two of the guys come into contact with a disoriented hunter. Not only is he acting strangely, but also his stomach seems to be growing at an alarming rate. If you've seen any of the "Alien" movies, as King clearly has, you don't have to be told what's coming next.
Kasdan has been quoted as saying he didn't want to make one of those scare movies where you never get to actually see the horrors from outer space. The ones in "Dreamcatcher" are nasty enough to disturb the unwary, courtesy of a reported 400 visual-effects shots made by a postproduction group that rivaled the shooting crew for size.
An eek-fest like "Dreamcatcher" may seem a departure for Kasdan, whose best-known film as a director remains "The Big Chill," but maybe it isn't. He's gotten to work with an ensemble of young actors (as well as Morgan Freeman, who plays a silly anti-alien Army officer), and he's gotten to exercise the side of him that wrote "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." It's too bad that the results are so often awkward and lacking in finesse.
But maybe, when you think about it, this clumsiness is at the core of what success "Dreamcatcher" has. Given that King's gift is mixing the pedestrian with the terrifying, having the supernatural rub up against the everyday, maybe the film's dead zones, so to speak, are essential for the creation of the sense of the ordinary that's necessary for the film to be effective. If we weren't wincing, maybe we wouldn't be scared. It's something to think about.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, gore and language
Times guidelines: Extremely grotesque and voracious space aliens
Morgan Freeman ... Colonel Curtis
Thomas Jane ... Dr. Henry Devlin
Jason Lee ... Beaver
Damian Lewis ... Jonesy
Timothy Olyphant ... Pete
Tom Sizemore ... Owen Underhill
Donnie Wahlberg ... Duddits
Castle Rock Entertainment presents, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NVP Entertainment, a Kasdan Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Lawrence Kasdan. Producers Lawrence Kasdan, Charles Okun. Executive producer Bruce Berman. Screenplay William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan, based on the book by Stephen King. Cinematographer John Seale. Editors Carol Littleton, Raul Davalos. Costume designer Molly Maginnis. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Jon Hutman. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
In general release.
"Dreamcatcher" bounces between tedium and grotesque scariness.
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