Contrary to the brilliant trailer-cutting department at Warner Bros., It is not a scary movie. What It is, is a young-teens-on-bikes small-town-USA ‘80s-set adventure yarn, like Netflix’s Stranger Things, with which It shares much in common. Stranger Things, as an intellectual exercise, imagines a Stephen King-like story as directed by Steven Spielberg. It is based on a Stephen King novel and is directed in the style of Steven Spielberg. Stranger Things is also better.
This is seriously against It’s interests, because Stranger Things got to us first, while It languished in extended Development Hell, and now – the true irony – It feels like a rip-off of Stranger Things! Oh well – Stranger Things have happened.
So is It worth seeing? Perhaps if you’re a young teen, like the protagonists of the story, it will give you a rollicking couple of hours. And if you’re an adult, it may scratch that god-darn Goonies itch, or even a Gremlins gremlin. But it’s unfortunately been so late in coming, it feels redundant and sub-par. It’s not as engaging as Stand By Me, ET, the aforementioned Stranger Things, or even Super 8 (2011), the film It is perhaps the closest kissing cousin to. That film was J.J. Abrams’ obvious homage to Spielberg; here, from young Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama), it’s less homage, more pure obvious influence. Abrams was lovingly aping a style; as far as we know, this is Muschietti’s style. Every frame of the film aches to remind you of another, much better, one.
King’s books and stories – there are a lot of them – have their ups and downs; there are classics and there are lesser works. As a general rule, though, he writes brilliantly effective scenes rather than perfectly constructed entire narratives, and It suffers from this aspect of his craft. It’s got a boatload of creepy moments and this filmed version, being quite faithful, is incredibly episodic, coming off as a series of set-pieces that hang together very loosely. “It” is a demon that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, every twenty-seven years. At its best – that is, its most memorable for readers and viewers – “It” appears as Pennywise, a creepy clown. But this film, embracing CGI in a way that the TV mini-series of 1990 could not, wastes its trump card. We barely get any Pennywise as, well, Pennywise, but instead an awful lot of Pennywise-as-special effect, “shapeshifting”, being churned through the digital funhouse mirror. And, well… obvious digital effects just aren’t scary.
Like Stranger Things, the best performance and most interesting character is the lone girl in the gang of guys. Here it’s Beverly, played very, very effectively by Sophia Lillis, who has only been acting a couple of years but carries the movie. She is almost spookily evocative of a young teen Amy Adams, which may be very deliberate, as the final credits for the film reveal that this is It, Chapter One, and we have another movie, with the kids all grown up, to come. Whether they can convince Adams to be in that movie by flattering her with the casting of this young doppelgänger is doubtful in the extreme, but Lillis is excellent on her own merits.
One note for the pervs: the infamous scene from the novel depicting the shenanigans the gang gets up to as their final youthful act together has, for every possible reason, not been filmed and distributed here. For that, we’ll have to wait for Larry Clark’s take, which would have been far more interesting, I have little doubt, than this lacklustre romp.