Like a long-forgotten corpse that’s been quietly decomposing for 12 years, but then suddenly sits bolt upright and projectile-vomits in the direction of your local multiplex, “The Ring” franchise lives — sort of.
Sporting some recycled poster art and a tagline that’s more clickbaity than terrifying (“First you watch it. Then you die”), “Rings” isn’t just another pointless, long-deferred sequel in the “Zoolander 2” vein. Directed by newcomer F. Javier Gutiérrez, it’s a full-blown young-adult-friendly reboot, which means that it has only a cursory narrative relationship to either “The Ring” (2002) or “The Ring Two” (2005) — let alone “Ringu” (1998), the Hideo Nakata-directed Japanese thriller that first set this English-language cycle of remakes in motion.
The only real link between the two earlier American movies and this one is the video — you know, that static-riddled short film that looks like a Salvador Dali brain fart and winds up killing you seven days after you watch it. At the end of “The Ring,” the movie’s heroine (Naomi Watts) realized she could ward off death by copying and circulating the video, appeasing the long-haired ghoul girl known as Samara by spreading her gospel of terror. The jump scares were forgettable, but the denouement did offer a richly suggestive metaphor for the digital age: Go viral or die.
The metaphor feels even more relevant — if also, inevitably, more tired — at a time when smartphone technology has become as insidious and inescapable as any horror-movie poltergeist. No longer is Samara confined to the VHS dustbin; now she can crawl out of your Android, raid your emoji library and (for all I know) whip up some seriously screwed-up Snapchats. The opening scene of “Rings” finds her flying coach with some very unfortunate passengers, leaping from one seat-back TV screen to the next. She isn’t just Samara; she’s Samara On Demand.
That’s just a teaser for the real story, which follows a teenager named Julia (Matilda Lutz) who’s just said goodbye to her college-bound sweetheart, Holt (Alex Roe). But when he suddenly stops taking her calls several weeks later, she doesn’t do what you’d expect, which is heave a sigh of relief that she’s no longer dating a guy named Holt.
Instead she races to track him down on campus and crosses paths with a maverick professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), who has turned the Samara video into the strangest extracurricular project imaginable — one whose lofty philosophical underpinnings can’t quite conceal the fact that he’s basically running a massive, and deadly, pyramid scheme.
Scripted by David Loucka, Jacob Estes and (eeeeek!) Akiva Goldsman, “Rings” has a few points of overlap with last year’s souped-up “Blair Witch” reboot, as well as the ingenious 2014 thriller “It Follows,” which was similarly predicated on the notion that the hope of salvation lies in other people’s misery. But Julia is an unusually empathetic protagonist, and with Holt once more at her side, she undertakes a journey motivated less by self-preservation than by compassion and curiosity.
On one level, “Rings” advances the watch-and-die premise into the digital present, when a piece of visual media can be rapidly copied, disseminated and even altered with the click of a button. (It almost — almost — excuses the movie’s own tedious lack of originality.) But it also traces the series’ mythology back to its roots, teasing out a hellishly convoluted backstory about a murdered girl, her tormented mother and various other disturbing narrative effluvia that pop up in Samara’s latest video recut.
What Julia discovers, alas, is hardly worth her time and efforts. There is a blind man named Burke (the reliably unsettling Vincent D’Onofrio) who has some knowledge to impart about Samara’s past. There are insect swarms and hairballs. There are chase scenes and would-be shock moments, most of them shot with such murky indifference that Samara’s video looks like a triumph of production values by comparison.
At no point does the movie manage even a single sequence of sustained tension, or a frisson of genuine terror. Instead it leans back on a few clever, self-satisfied references to the myth of Orpheus, who famously could have rescued his beloved Eurydice if he only he had simply kept walking and never looked back.
It’s a lesson that applies to “Rings” too, if not in quite the way the filmmakers had in mind.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence/terror, thematic elements, some sexuality and brief drug material
Playing: In general release