The track record of Stephen King adaptations is a spotty one, in no small part due to the density and complexity of his novels. None are more emblematic of this than IT, one of his strongest works, but also one of the most challenging to bring to the screen. Taking place over two different time periods but focusing on the same tightly knit group of characters, it’s a sprawling, often terrifying, intense work that deserves a production with an equally intense focus on detail and characterization. The first such effort was a miniseries from 1990 that made Tim Curry’s depiction of the malevolent clown/demon Pennywise legendary. That series is one that we often vehemently defend, albeit through a somewhat rose-tinted hue.
Then, in 2017, director Andy Muschietti brought the novel to the big screen, but also did so in the only workable way possible - by dividing the novel into two films, one set with the characters as children, and the second - released this weekend - with them returning to Derry, ME, 27 years later as adults to confront the evil buried beneath the town. That presence, never named anything beyond IT, manifests itself again in the form of the cleverly cruel clown, Pennywise, is once again savagely feeding on the denizens of Derry, and it’s up to the now-grownup “Losers” to try to defeat him, once and for all.
As with Chapter 1, Muschietti (working off a screenplay by Gary Dauberman) hews fairly close to the novel, albeit trimming a good bit of it back out of necessity. But the major parts are still there — Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), and Eddie (James Ransone) are summoned back to Derry by Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one who remained there after the events of the first film. Arriving with barely any memory of their childhood traumas, each must go on their own separate journey to face the metaphorical and literal demons of their past in order to gather what’s needed to face It in a final showdown.
The cast is a monster, and the story is a slam-dunk. So why did IT Chapter 2 fail so utterly to entertain? Because it did fail, in almost as many ways as its predecessor succeeded. The first film burrowed its way into our minds by heaping a healthy serving of nostalgia next to a collection of surprisingly excellent child actors. With a successful cast of kids, it enabled us to reawaken our childhood fears and phobias, and with a plot laden with a pervading sense of dread and moody atmospherics — not to mention the joyousness of the “kids on bikes” aspect of it — it made for compelling and enthralling (and at times terrifying) movie-watching. By moving the story into their adult personas, some of that sense of wonder and fear is lost.
But it’s an oversimplification to blame Chapter 2’s failures on a lack of nostalgia. Instead, the film suffers from massive pacing issues and abandoning many of the principles that made the first film so successful. Sure, some of this is due to King’s writing (and to be fair, much like the films, the front half of the novel is far stronger than the back). But the film also pulls some of King’s punches, relying less on a study of what they fear and more on making the audience afraid. This is a fine distinction, but one of the film’s larger failures. King’s work often focuses on creating dread through familiarity, making us see through the eyes of the protagonists and live through their often dark and tragic histories. While we do go on a journey to each of their pasts, the reliance is more on an effects-laden horror convention and jump scares than a real sense of human loss and suffering. Though the film’s opening is strong enough and the gathering of the Losers is well-executed, the entirety of the film’s middle section felt like watching a series of cheaply made horror vignettes and less like a cohesive narrative.
This all culminates in a finale that is somehow both overlong and insubstantial, a cacophonous set of circular chases and monstrous beings that all blurs together into a tired and thoroughly unexciting conclusion. And while the actors all give decent performances — particularly Hader, Chastain, and McAvoy — a reductive and aimless script removes any real sense of sympathy. The film is also crippled by its ridiculous length — at ten minutes shy of three hours, it’s a hell of a slog given how uninspired its script is. It’s almost shocking to realize that it’s a mere 15 minutes longer than Chapter 1, because it felt like twice that. There’s often no greater measure of a film’s failure than feeling long, and IT: Chapter 2 feels practically interminable.
IT Chapter 2 is far from a terrible film, but it doesn’t even come close to the first one, focusing too much on conventional horror tropes and giving short shrift to its characters. A story that somehow manages to be bloated yet hollow makes its length a serious problem, and it finally results in a mostly forgettable experience. Instead of building on the foundation of its first entry, we’re left with seeing a strong cast wasted and an engaging story capped by an ultimately lackluster sequel.
Header Image Source: New Line Cinema