Stephen King, America’s most popular horror writer, is back in fashion. He’s got four big movies this year. In April, Pet Sematary was remade profitably. In October, Netflix is releasing In The Tall Grass. His sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep, is coming in November, starring Ewan McGregor. And then there’s the second It movie, which just debuted in theaters at $91 million.
Admittedly, this is much less than the 2017 It; produced on a small budget of $35 million, it went on to gross $700 million worldwide. As the success of Stranger Things demonstrates, we prefer stories about kids—we take their drama more seriously, since they don’t deserve bad things. It: Chapter Two is far less fun or touching than the first film, because the kids are now all grown up and incredibly disappointing, despite being played by stars, including Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader.
The movie has three big problems, the first of which is its running time: 2 hours and 49 minutes! Not only is it slow, but it repeats the structure of the first movie, so it feels like you’ve seen it all before. This is tied to the second problem—the mood of the film is rather hopeless. Those lovable kids, the “Losers Club,” from the first movie, are now 40-year-olds with no one to love or be loved by. Sure, we know they’ll win in the end, but they’re no longer looking forward to a good future. We thought those kids showed promise—that their characters were developing and being tested. Now, we know that promise was unfulfilled, or false.
The story is mostly about the dreary drama of being a failure in America. The “Losers” who turned out to be winners against cosmic evil—and who will repeat the performance—learned nothing about how to be adults or what to do with their lives. Worse, we also learn that they started on this miserable path by abandoning each other, over nothing, the very summer they triumphed over evil. Freedom is very lonely, it seems, and friendship counts for nothing.
The mood, theme, and protagonists add up to one dark suggestion: you cannot escape your past. Since the past—childhood—is not chosen, this makes freedom seem like a delusion. The original leader of the Losers is now a successful writer, played by McAvoy, but he seems miserable and reverts to his childhood traumas, from stuttering to guilt for losing his little brother. He never became any kind of leader—it’s hard to say even that he’s a good man.
Even more startling is the one girl among the Losers, now played by Chastain. Originally a teenager abused by her creepy father, she grows up to marry a creepy, abusive husband. This part is directed like soap opera, with some implausible “kick-ass girl” action thrown in. There’s some hope at the end that she’ll now love the man who, as a boy, wrote her love poems, but there’s no joy left in the story by that point.
That boy, once a fat kid, is now fit, handsome, and a successful architect. Is he any better off? He is haunted, surely, by having faced pure evil, but is he more or less happy or good? We don’t really know. Somehow, these adults are less capable of action, introspection, and dialogue than the children were, so the audience is left having to project its own feelings on to them.
This brings us to the third big problem of the movie. The book It has some insane parts in it, because that’s how Stephen King thinks. The movie-makers wisely decided to skip these—among them, an orgy and the revelation of a cosmic turtle guarding the universe. But then the writers and directors had to take responsibility for remaking the story morally and intellectually.
Their idea is: you fight evil by calling it names, by making it feel small. Fear is apparently not real—it’s all in your imagination, and the power of imagination will defeat evil. Adults in America have apparently given up that power, but could reclaim it, just as the Losers Club were amnesiac about the events of the first movie and their victory over evil, but they must remember.
This is far more insane than anything King put in his original story, and leads to a stunning scene at the end in which the Losers hear from the one member who doesn’t return to fight the evil menacing their hometown, having committed suicide rather than face it again. He tells them, through a letter, to follow their dreams. This stirring exhortation from a guy who committed suicide is the moral conclusion of the movie.
Does the movie say anything beyond urban liberals exorcising the evil hypocrisy of small-town America? If it does, it’s that the people who make such movies believe in the highest liberal doctrine—See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak Out Against Bullies. The only alternative is death.
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