Buggles review

The Dead Zone - Dir: David Cronenberg

Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen


Up until a few nights ago, I had never seen “The Dead Zone.” Unlike pretty much everyone I knew, this 1983 film starring Christopher Walken (based on the novel by Steven King) had managed to stay unwatched by my learned eyes. This neglect was a secret shame that I always carried with me, as the film was almost unanimously recommended to me by those who had seen it and I truly felt I could never be a part of the in-crowd until I made up for this deficiency.

This is not to say I was unfamiliar with concept of the movie. I knew it was about a guy who has a car accident and wakes up with the ability to visualize events that will occur in the past, present or future of people whom he comes in physical contact with. (I'd even seen several episodes of the USA network “Dead Zone” TV show starring Anthony Michael Hall.) So when I found myself perusing the Cronenberg section of Vidiots recently, I figured I would fill this glaring hole in my checklist of must-sees and rent the movie.

And frankly, I thought it sucked.

It failed to appeal to me on a number of levels, most noticeably with its characters. Christopher Walken defangs his standard “unhinged maniac” character in his portrayal of Johnny Smith and the result is a protagonist who’s unusually boring. I suppose I should have been empathizing the burdens of responsibility that came with Smith’s prophetic abilities, but I kept getting distracted with the fascinating patterns that could be found in my carpet. Brooke Adams plays Smith’s former girlfriend, Sarah (now married to another man, alas), and had that 1980’s “Mom” look that only Dee Wallace could successfully pull off.. Martin Sheen probably had a blast doing a send up of Ronald Reagan in the character of Senator/Presidential Candidate Greg Stillson but it was such a black and white portrayal, it was hard to take seriously. And how about that “introspective but precocious” kid character played by Simon Craig? What was with that bowl hair cut? Totally gay.

The plot fared no better. I’ll say this, I suspect “The Dead Zone” is a good (if not great) novel. But the movie felt like a long and complex story crammed into and hour and a half and something definitely got lost along the way. Over the past ten years early King movies like “The Shining” and “Carrie” have been remade as mini-series with the author’s blessing. (Apparently he hated what Kubrick did with “The Shining.”) “The Dead Zone” would be ideal candidate for such an expansion. (Though I guess that's what the TV show is.)

Also, the story just seemed simplistic and cliché. For instance, I seriously doubt the release of the U.S.’s nuclear payload would be as effortless as the movie seems to claim. And was anyone truly surprised when the serial killer turned out to be the Deputy? Those sorts of plot contrivances seemed hackneyed back in the 1890’s.

I will admit that the movie did touch on an interesting philosophical quandary in exploring the morality of killing someone who will commit a heinous crime in the future. With the current polarizing effect of George Bush on this nation, I’m sure it’s one being continually discussed in college dorms across America. But “The Dead Zone” avoids the interesting grey areas of the debate (What if Smith is, just this once, wrong? Or what if he’s misinterpreting the visions?) and instead finishes the story with a ham fisted certainty that is seldom found in real life.

I was interested to note that the film was directed by the controversial David Cronenberg.  Cronenberg is definitely one of those “love him or hate him” types of guys, though for me it occurs on a case by case basis. I love some of his earlier work like “The Brood,” “Videodrome” and “Scanners.” On the other hand I thought “Crash” was quite possibly the worst film ever made and was unimpressed with “Dead Ringers.” “The Dead Zone” for better or worse, shows little imprint of Cronenberg’s touch. I can only assume the producers were breathing heavily over his shoulder when he made this, and the result is direction indistinguishable from the plethora of capable but impersonal hacks whose work populates the Lifetime Channel.


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