“The Ring” is a stylish Hollywood remake of the Japanese horror sensation that unfortunately has little personality of its own. Insinuating creepiness of this tale of a bizarre videotape that brings death to those who watch it comes across in muted fashion, with uninvolving characters and lack of genuine excitement or fright creating a second-rate, second-hand feel. DreamWorks release could fill a need as a Halloween season scare item in the absence of anything similar in the marketplace but looks unlikely to spawn two follow-ups as the Japanese original did.
A rather ordinary picture artistically apart from its arresting premise, the Nipponese “The Ring,” directed by Hideo Nakata and based on a novel by Koji Suzuki (the so-called Stephen King of Japan), became one of the biggest domestic grossers of all time after its release in January 1998. Huge in other Asian markets as well, such as Hong Kong, it was followed by “The Ring 2,” another smash also helmed by Nakata, and finally by “Ring 0: The Birthday,” a prequel directed by Norio Tsuruta in 2001.
Unnerving quality of the original surely had something to do with the universal consciousness of the invasiveness of television and the telephone in everyday lives, as well as with the irresistibility of both inventions; if a TV is on, it’s almost impossible not to look at it, and if the phone rings, it’s hard not to answer it.
Both impulses are central to the way “The Ring,” old and new, grab viewer attention at the very outset. Hanging out alone one night, teenage best friends Katie and Becca share what they know about a weird video that’s been making the rounds of high school circles. Turns out Katie and her b.f. saw it during an illicit visit to a mountain cabin a week earlier, then got a phone call informing them that they will die in seven days.
Separately, Katie, Josh and two other teens meet untimely ends that night, spurring Katie’s aunt, newspaper reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), to investigate the case. Single mom Rachel has an odd little son, Aidan (David Dorfman), who has recently taken to drawing pictures featuring buried bodies, which momentarily introduces a “Sixth Sense” element that ultimately amounts to a red herring.
Making her way to the remote cabin, Rachel finds the video and watches it with appropriate trepidation. The black-and-white tape is like an intense but maddeningly obscure surrealist short, featuring a collection of stark and seemingly unrelated images, including those of a stern-looking middle-aged woman, a centipede, an old house and the woman dumping the body of a girl into a well. Then comes the dreaded “seven days” call.
Director Gore Verbinski handles the setup in quiet, understated fashion, the ominous mood strengthened by the wet, overcast Seattle-area weather. Feeling of an inexorable oppressive force closing in is furthered by the ticking clock that now hangs over Rachel’s life, in that she is now convinced that she has but a week to learn enough about the tape, its source and its lethal power to prevent her death.
But as the film slips more into procedural mode, with Rachel enlisting the aid of Aidan’s dad Noah (Martin Henderson), a skeptical video expert, the knitting holding the yarn together begins to fray and show its weakness; the leads that enable Rachel to pursue the case are often implausibly discovered and connected, timelines and logistics don’t convince, and the principal characters reveal themselves as conventional, one-dimensional types of no distinction, quirks or special interest.
While scenarist Ehren Kruger has added a few dramatic wrinkles of his own to the Japanese version, he’s crucially neglected to give the characters anything to play other than to react as average people would to adverse circumstances. When first seen in her newspaper office, Rachel appears to be on the brink of being fired until she informs her editor of the teen deaths story she’s working on. Why was she about to be canned? Is she an unreliable reporter? Is she too stressed by being a single working mom to handle the demands of her job? Is she sleeping with her boss’ son? We never learn why, which doesn’t matter in and of itself though it does reflect the fact that we know absolutely nothing about this woman and therefore have no way to engage with her as a character except as a standard-issue woman-in-peril. This goes double for the character of Noah.
Therefore, in her much-anticipated first starring role since her startling and fabulous performance in “Mulholland Drive,” Watts has been straightjacketed into a role that gives her nothing to play other than attempted resourcefulness under duress. To make matters worse, Verbinski and lenser Bojan Bazelli, neither of them slouches when it comes to visual style, don’t find a way to photograph her to maximum advantage until about an hour in, when, having discovered some of the video’s secrets, Rachel visits an island farm and has a dodgy encounter with a difficult older man (Brian Cox).
Latter-going, which clarifies many aspects of the contents of the video but still doesn’t begin to explain everything that’s happened in the film, is more elaborated than in the Japanese original. Thesping is unexceptional across the board, while craft elements are fine, with special kudos to the Method Studios for creating the compellingly mysterious Ring video as well as visual effects, of which Charles Gibson was supervisor. Rick Baker delivers some convincingly bruised, battered and decomposed makeup effects.
Pic emerges in the end as a low-impact suspenser that sustains a certain mood but doesn’t approach the full potential of its premise.