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It: Chapter Two

Right off the bat, the title should inform you that It: Chapter Two was never built to stand on its own. If you have no functional memory of the previous 2017 film or the Stephen King source novel (preferably both), or if you have no interest in either, don’t even bother giving this one your money or time.

Stephen King’s “It” is an 1100+ page monster of a novel, structured in such a way that it constantly flashes between two time periods, following our main ensemble of characters as teenagers and grown adults. To address this, the filmmakers (led by recurring Annabelle screenwriter Gary Dauberman, director Andy Muschietti, and his sister/business parter/producer Barbara Muschietti) split the source material into two films, with each movie taking place in its own time period.

The obvious benefit to this is that the story now unfolds in a more straightforward and coherent chronological manner. The unfortunate downside is that thematically, the movie depends heavily on parallels between past and present. In many poignant ways, this is a story about distant childhood memories — some are better left forgotten, some are a great comfort to rediscover, and none of them (no matter how distant) ever truly cease to exist. Though we can (and often should) work to grow beyond our past, the past is always there nonetheless.

The bottom line is, flashbacks were unavoidable. Even with all the groundwork laid in the first movie, the second movie frequently cuts back to the teenage years of our cast. Mercifully, the filmmakers included a lot of really sweet transitions to take us seamlessly between the two periods, launching us into the mindsets of the characters as they flash back to yesteryear. The filmmakers even brought back the first movie’s cast (Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher, Wyatt Olef, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, and Jeremy Ray Taylor) to shoot some new footage for the flashbacks, thankfully before too much time had passed for any of them to age out.

Alas, putting the two sets of actors side-by-side does not do any favors to our adult cast (James McAvoy, Andy Bean, James Ransone, Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, and Jay Ryan). Don’t get me wrong, the adult cast is loaded with seasoned veterans and there’s not a slouch in the bunch. Even so, the teenaged cast had much better chemistry, they gave more spirited performances, and they did a better job of selling the whole concept of Pennywise. Which makes sense, given that Pennywise’s entire MO was built around scaring and murdering children.

Speaking of Pennywise, my opinion of Bill Skarsgaard’s rendition hasn’t changed from the first movie. This interpretation of the character is so consistently buried in makeup and VFX that it would make precious little difference who’s playing the role. As I said in my review of the first entry, “In the miniseries, the actor owned the role. In the film, the role owned the actor.”

Furthermore, we’ve already spent over two hours with this character and the Losers have already killed him once. We’ll have spent five hours with him by the end of this movie, and that’s not even counting however long it took you to get through 1100 pages if you read the book. We know what Pennywise is after and we know how he operates. We know when he’s going to kill, we know how he’s going to kill, and we know when he’s just fucking around with his intended victims. And for that matter, we’ve seen enough of the filmmakers by now to know their style of horror and their sense of timing.

Case in point: Early in the film, Pennywise attacks and kills a young girl with a large facial birthmark (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong). The whole sequence was a lot scarier the first time I saw it, when Pennywise killed Georgie Denbrough at the start of the first movie!

All of this familiarity leads to a movie that is thoroughly not scary. While there are a lot of freaky and unsettling visuals (this interpretation of the fortune cookie scene is really fucked up), that doesn’t translate into legitimate horror when we know exactly what’s coming and where the serious threats are. That goes double for the horror sequences in the “teenage years” time frame — alternately showing the kids in mortal danger and alive 27 years later doesn’t make any lick of sense.

Worst of all, the filmmakers try to compensate for all of this with jump scares. Lots and lots of jump scares. It gets very old very fast, to the point where it isn’t even scary so much as obnoxious. At one point, when a character asks if they should be running from some creepy shit happening, even Bill says “It’s Derry, I’ve gotten kinda used to it.”

That’s another thing that got on my nerves: The self-referential comedy. There isn’t very much of it, thankfully, but we do get a running gag in which a chagrined Bill is confronted with the repeated feedback that he can’t write a decent ending to save his life. We even get prominent speaking cameos from Peter Bogdonavich and Stephen King himself, rubbing it in that Bill is a wonderful author whose endings are crap. It was a cute little dig at King the first time, but after the tenth time, it got to be a kind of obstinate apology. Like “Yeah, we know this movie is going to be crap compared to what came before and you won’t be happy with the ending. Deal with it.”

Let’s move on to our other antagonist, Henry Bowers (played as a teen by the returning Nicholas Hamilton, and as an adult by Teach Grant). Yes, Hank the Tank inexplicably survived the first movie, hell if I know how or why. While the character is a suitably creepy presence, he’s somehow even less effectual than he is in the source text, which is to say that he’s thoroughly useless. In an overstuffed film in excess of 150 minutes, the filmmakers could have and should have let Henry Bowers die in the first film.

To be clear, the movie did make some wise cuts. Beverly’s husband (Tom, played by Will Beinbrink), makes a token appearance at the start, but his nonsensical and useless appearance in the third act was cut. Ditto for Bill’s wife Audra (Jess Weixler) — sorry, I know her ride down the hill at the end is iconic, but there’s just no way of translating that to the screen in a truly effective way.

Easily my favorite alteration — and by far the most consequential — was altering the Ritual of Chud. Now, the ritual involves each of our main characters going out in search of some item that holds special sentimental value to their childhoods. Thus they all have a legitimate reason to split up and get into spooky misadventures at their old childhood haunts. Nicely done.

Additionally, the Ritual of Chud is no longer described as some absurd and convoluted crap about biting tongues and trading riddles. It’s a battle of wits, pure and simple. A nice, straightforward way of explaining that It draws its power from psychological manipulation, and can only be defeated through imagination and sheer force of will. Trouble is, there’s still no way of actually demonstrating that or fully explaining it without looking like cliched hackneyed tripe. Noble effort, though.

Another wonderful change is that the giant spider is not described as It’s true form. Rather, the deadlights are It’s true form, and the spider is simply another form of the shapeshifter that the deadlights act through. A clever fix, and a great deal less lame. On a similar note, though turtles are still a recurring visual motif, the grand cosmic turtle was cut for good. Probably for the best.

The sweathouse spirit quest from the book was liberally adapted here. Instead of the kids going on a weird hallucination trip, it’s been assigned to the adult timeline, and with only two of the characters undertaking it. Mercifully, the group sex scene from the book is never even tangentially referenced in either time frame. Both good choices.

Bill’s amusement park encounter with Pennywise is a film original, the culmination of his efforts at saving a young boy (played by Luke Roessler) who lives in Bill’s old house. Yes, it’s another extension of Bill’s everlasting grief for the loss of his younger brother, though I guess the filmmakers had to keep that going so the subplot could be resolved in a genuinely sweet way.

Stanley still dies before he ever sets foot in Derry, but the filmmakers came up with all sorts of clever and heartfelt ways to keep Stanley involved even after death. Nicely done.

Still, there are two changes made that really get under my skin. First, the climax of the book features Derry getting torn to shreds. The fight with It causes Derry to get ripped apart like a goddamn Roland Emmerich set. It was such an awesome spectacle in the book and I’m supremely disappointed it didn’t get shown onscreen. Speaking of which, while I understand how the concept of an entire town corrupted by a shapeshifting monster into acting like shitheels might have been a difficult concept to translate to film, omitting it entirely might have been preferable to half-assing it like the filmmakers do here.

But by far the biggest change — and this is the dealbreaker — is that after the climax, the surviving characters remember everything. In the book, it’s kind of a huge thematic point that the characters start to forget everything and move on with their lives as they move further away from Derry. The story has to have that bittersweet ending, or the themes about aging and nostalgia fall apart. It’s such a damn shame that one lousy and totally unnecessary artistic decision keeps this vital part of the story from sticking the landing, especially after all the work the filmmakers did to try and build it up, but it’s all half-baked and flimsy without that ending.

It: Chapter Two feels perfunctory more than anything else. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t do Part One without also doing Part Two, so they went ahead with it in the hopes of getting a strong ending out of this source material. It’s a really tall order to try and make a satisfactory ending out of so much incoherent world-building in the novel, to try and keep Pennywise scary over five straight hours of cinema, and to adapt so many abstract concepts into a concrete visual medium. I can forgive some of the missteps in adaptation (especially given some of the smarter cuts that they made), but I can’t forgive the film for whiffing the nostalgia-based themes when this cast and crew should’ve knocked it out of the park.

This film needed to be a worthy payoff for five hours of sitting through two movies, to say nothing of the admission dollars spent and the two years of waiting between movies. Alas, the end result is nowhere near so rewarding, but at least it’s not bad enough to retroactively ruin the first movie. I can give this one a rental recommendation if you loved the first film and you really want to know how it ends. That said, if you like the story and characters that much and you’re willing to put so much time and effort into experiencing it, just read the book instead.

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