Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Hitcher

Director: Dave Meyers
Starring: Sean Bean, Sophia Bush, Zachary Knighton, Neal McDonough

Running Time: 83 Min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

Let's make something clear right out of the gate: 1986's The Hitcher is not a flawless film and the idea of remaking it is far from blasphemous. It was a slightly above average thriller made special by a scary Rutger Hauer performance and a concept with mass appeal. It works, but I thought some of the plot turns were outlandish and ridiculous, even for a genre film like that. It could be improved and revisiting it (if done well) actually makes a lot of sense on paper and ranks pretty low on the remake offensiveness scale. I would almost dare call it a good idea.

Which is why it's that much more remarkable that director Dave Meyers has somehow managed to remake The Hitcher and make it far worse than the original, which in itself wasn't a great film to begin with. Even more remarkably he does it by pointlessly reenacting the original film scene by scene, all along the way changing the elements that worked and keeping things that didn't. He puts on a clinic on how not to remake a film. It actually takes a lot of skill to make a movie this wrongheaded that fails in so many different ways. A skill I wouldn't wish on anyone

What's most frustrating about the 2007 version of The Hitcher is that it actually starts off promisingly and the right adjustments were made to update the story for the current audience. Twenty years ago it was much more plausible that someone would pick up a scary looking hitchhiker on the side of the highway and give him a ride. We were stupid and trusting back then. It was the 80's. We were invincible. Reagan was President. Our parents hadn't warned us yet that strangers could kill you. Instead of C. Thomas Howell transporting a car solo from Chicago to California we now have college co-eds Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim (Zachary Knighton) driving through New Mexico on Spring Break. The remake does something that may be considered clever (although I deem it absolutely necessary) by acknowledging the danger of just simply picking up a hitchhiker.

That "hitcher" is John Ryder (Sean Bean) and how he does eventually get into the car is plausible and early on it actually looks like that decision to have a male and female protagonist makes sense. In the beginning it creates an interesting extra dynamic in the story with their relationship. Unfortunately it also takes away an interesting dynamic that existed in the original, being the one on one psychological battle between Jim and Ryder. Jim and Grace have different views on how the situation should be handled and I thought it was mildly interesting how they got into the situation they did. By starting things off differently, but in way that makes sense, we're given hope that Meyers intends to use the original film as a springboard to convey his own vision. Wishful thinking.

The decisions Meyers makes next are not only lazy, but insanely stupid. Instead of continuing in the opening minutes' promising direction he instead attempts to mimic the original film story point by story point and shot by shot. He also decides the best way to do this is by shooting it like a music video. Of course this figures since Dave Meyers has a directorial resume full of music videos shot for Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and The Dave Matthews Band. That's great, and the film undeniably is shot well and looks terrific, but this is a horror thriller not a music video. Meyers also sprinkles modern rock music (like the All-American Rejects and Nine-Inch Nails) throughout unnecessarily. It's not that the music is bad, but just rather it has no place and shows up at just the wrong moments to drain the movie of any suspense or atmosphere.

Inexplicably, Meyers also chooses to keep the problematic middle portion of the original film intact almost exactly as is. If anything should have been changed, it was that. Now with an extra person involved it actually comes off far worse and more implausible. While Robert Harmon's original was able to hide the implausibility and ridiculousness behind taut, suspenseful direction, Meyers' style just seems to call attention to it. The movie is almost fascinating to watch to see how Meyers and screenwriters Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt stubbornly adhere to Eric Red's original story (right up to and including the ending), but fail to inject any of the pathos or fright the 1986 film did.

The decision to cast Sean Bean in the John Ryder role is a curious one. He's physically intimidating and looks the part, but Meyers insists on having him attempt to copy the mannerisms of Rutger Hauer. Now don't get me wrong, Hauer is never going to win any Academy Awards for his acting but he has a scary and creepy presence onscreen that can't be denied. Sean Bean doesn't. Why Meyers would attempt to have him act exactly like him and show off that fact is perplexing. Why didn't he just invite Hauer back to play the role if he admired his work so much? The addition of Sophia Bush (TV's One Tree Hill) as Grace was clearly made to cater to the teen audiences and give guys something to look at, but here's the irony: She actually gives the best performance in the film and it may actually be just as good, or at least no worse, than C. Thomas Howell's in the original. Of course this is hidden behind the awful direction and the fact that Zachary Knighton's bland Jim drags her down.

The addition of a sheriff played by Neal McDonough is completely superfluous and has absolutely no point other than to drive the action along faster. His presence is never more unnecessary than in the finale, which continues the trend of draining all the psychological undertones from the source material. Although the movie is loaded with action and clocks in at just under an hour and a half, it still somehow manages to drag and strangely feels like a direct to video release. It's a real hatchet job clearly done to just cash in. I'm not sure if it's surprising or not that it comes from Michael Bay's Platimum Dunes production company, the same folks that brought us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror remakes. I caught some heat for recommending last years' The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, but at least that movie took itself seriously and knew what it was. The Hitcher is a joke. The DVD release also contains one of the stupidest and pointless special features I've ever seen involving a newscast that (inaccurately!) recounts the events of the film. It plays like a bad skit that won't end on Saturday Night Live, serving as further proof that supplemental material on DVD's have spiraled out of control.

When the film ended I imagined director Dave Meyers sitting down and having dinner with Gus Van Sant, who directed 1998's ill-fated Psycho remake. They could talk about how they both pointlessly remade a horror film and chose to change only the things that made the original work and nothing else. Van Sant's casting choices, while awful, were at least unintentionally hysterical and entertaining in a train wreck kind of way. Meyers could never fail as interestingly or with as much skill as Van Sant who (Psycho notwithstanding) is actually a gifted filmmaker. Plus, he at least has the excuse that he was remaking a classic and nothing he could have done would have improved the original. Meyers could have improved 1986's The Hitcher, which was far from a masterpiece. Although in comparison to this it may now be remembered as one. If Dave Meyers' goal in remaking The Hitcher was for us to rediscover our love for the original, he succeeded admirably.

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