Some of the most talented film-makers in Hollywood can't quite overcome a silly story and weak special effects in this big-budget adaptation of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher. Boasting an intriguing build-up, colourful characters and some memorable scenes, it comes very close to working, especially in the first half. Unfortunately the story that eventually emerges is a silly and derivative sci-fi rip-off cobbled together from parts of War Of The Worlds, The Thing, Alien, The X-Files and Men In Black, along with bits and pieces of King's earlier work, notably It, Stand By Me and The Tommyknockers.
A lengthy first act introduces us to the four main characters - Henry (Thomas Jane), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), Pete (Timothy Olyphant) and Beaver (Jason Lee), four men who have been friends since childhood and share a supernatural bond. As kids, they saved a mentally handicapped child named Duddits from the cruelty of local bullies and befriended him. Duddits, who was no ordinary child, rewarded them with psychic powers and the knowledge that they will one day be called upon to use them. Now thirtysomethings, the four men feel like outsiders, only ever comfortable around each other.
The story proper begins when the friends set off together on a hunting trip in the snow-covered forests of Maine. They quickly find that something isn't right there. Animals are migrating en masse. A bewildered stranger stumbles out of the woods with a rash on his face and an upset stomach. Soon military helicopters are circling overhead. A special army unit led by Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and Captain Underhill (Tom Sizemore) has arrived, a unit which serves one secret purpose: to contain and exterminate unfriendly aliens.
Director Lawrence Kasdan, making his first horror film, shows a flair for creating suspense but his inexperience with special effects trips him up. Take Beaver and Jonesy's first encounter with the aliens in the cabin. It's a brilliant scene, worthy of Spielberg or De Palma, until we see the creatures, which are so cartoonish that it's impossible to take them seriously. They look like the comedy monsters from Men In Black. Similarly, a helicopter attack on the aliens' ship works up some real excitement and then blows it with unconvincing computer effects.
Also working against the film is an unwieldy and frequently confusing plot. It's obvious throughout Dreamcatcher that Kasdan and William Goldman, who co-wrote the script, had trouble condensing the thick novel and they've made some bad decisions along the way. Things that should have been thrown out include the ridiculous "shit-weasels", which are little more than a gross variation on the chest-bursters from Alien, and the whole concept of memory warehouses, a literary idea which looks silly on film and is never adequately explained. Other things which could have been better explained are the true nature of Duddits, Colonel Curtis's actions towards the end, the relevance of the dreamcatcher to the story and why, when one of the aliens speaks, he sounds like he's impersonating Malcolm McDowell.
We never learn much about the aliens. They're portrayed as intelligent, even possessing a sense of humour, but they don't seem to have any motive beyond killing us all. At which, incidentally, they aren't very competent. This is the first alien invasion film I've seen where the invaders get their asses kicked by a couple of helicopters. I didn't understand their life-cycle either. How do the red fungus, the worms, the shit-weasels and the larger aliens relate to each other? And what exactly will happen if the alien's plan succeeds at the end?
Despite its flaws, Dreamcatcher works for long stretches on the strength of its stars, who remain engaging even when the film they're in lapses into stupidity and incoherence. Thomas Jane is a solid lead and Jason Lee and Timothy Olyphant are both impressive in roles you'll wish were larger, although ironically the great Morgan Freeman can't do a lot with the familiar role of a mad army officer. Cinematographer John Seale gives the movie a stunning look and James Newton Howard delivers one of the best recent music scores. So much talent has gone into Dreamcatcher, it's a real shame it was all in the service of a story better suited to a cheap B-movie.
Note - Playing with Dreamcatcher is a short, computer-animated film called Final Flight Of The Osiris, which is based on The Matrix and is intended to whet your appetite for the imminent sequels. Running only 10 minutes, there's not a lot to it but the animation is very good and it does capture the visual style and atmosphere of The Matrix quite nicely.