You could hear the warning sirens sound all across Film Twitter when Cary Fukunaga’s weird, cosmic adaptation of the now-classic Stephen King novel It fell through and the first few images of the production that continued on without him hit the internet.
“This isn’t the Pennywise that I know!” some shouted. “This looks like “Stranger Things!” yelled other, younger, people (our ire at you comes more from envy, you unsavory lot). “That pipe is ridiculous!” screamed a few funnier people out there in the ether. And then that trailer came out, and the discourse totally fucking changed. Yes, it’s different than the story you may know: the story has been split into two parts, in chronological order. It’s bloodier: young Georgie, the poor little kid who loses his paper boat down a storm drain at the start of the film, now gets his arm ripped off once he meets our villain. Director Andy Muschietti’s updated the setting from the ’50s to the ’80s, roughly two years after King’s novel was released in our universe, and it’s a transition that while controversial (not all things are ripped off of Netflix shows, guys) pays off, for the most part. He’s willing to acknowledge how uncool the era was with regards to fashion and culture — you won’t find any killer Joy Division needle drops here, and thank Jesus for that. And the other thing he’s done that’s attracted some ire, the casting/design/usage of the story’s central villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, is happily also a success.
Bill Skarsgard’s approach to Pennywise is, to say the very least, a completely different take on the character than Tim Curry’s, but anyone who walks out of this film missing that performance is wearing rose-colored glasses and is probably going through some sort of mid — or quarter-life crisis at the moment, missing Blockbuster Video and the innocence of being scared by such a thing as a child. He’s not doing the Bozo the Clown schtick that would have initially frightened the hell out of kids who grew up in the 1950s; he’s doing something significantly more cosmic and weird, something that would have honest-to-christ scared the pants off of your average 11-year-old in 1989. For starters, his costume design, resembling a clown from an era centuries before start of the film, is fantastic and conveys a significant history behind it (director Muschietti has claimed that 20th century clowns don’t scare him, and while many thousands of people would disagree with him, it’s hard to argue with the results here). But, perhaps more impressively, Skarsgard brings a fascinating physicality to the role — look at the way his eyes drift about when he’s talking to Georgie at the start of the film, an impossibly unnerving skill that apparently the actor possesses IRL — and a hyper-emotional sensibility that endows the monster with something closer to a real character. You forget that he’s playing a role, a fact that Curry’s character was never able to escape outside of perhaps the youngest miniseries viewers.
It’s such a good performance that it’s hard not to want more of him in the film — so much of his screentime is limited to jump scares, outside of his introduction and the inevitable showdown at the end — and hopefully a Chapter Two can fix this issue. That lack of tension outside of your average Jack-in-the-box jumps (while certainly enough to cause emotional distress for wimps like me) wouldn’t be nearly enough to sustain an entire film of this colossal length. It’s nearly two hours and 15 minutes long, and is weighted heavily towards its first act, where Pennywise starts haunting the Losers’ Club with apparitions of their greatest fears. Again, there’s no creeping dread or anything that would make these character-based frights work on anything other than a mildly satisfactory level — they’re all just sort of perfunctory “boos,” but it feels like Muschetti is cognizant that the scares are not his film’s greatest asset. That would be the utterly fantastic young cast, who are given enough time to fully develop unlike some of the coming-of-age horror flicks that we often get (I’m looking at you, Super 8), and even though the film’s heavily weighted towards its first act, it’s necessary if you’re looking towards the future.
The gang’s all here: Poor Jaeden Lieberher (The Book of Henry) finally gets a chance to show his stuff as a protagonist and stammerer Bill, and his moments of heroism don’t feel forced by the plot: you feel his evolution through the stages of grief and understand his call-to-action. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard provides some of the comic relief, as Richie “Trashmouth” Tolzier, who is the kind of kid who learned how to swear before he really knew how to use the words effectively, which often puts him in conflict with the other comic relief, hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazier), who will discover later on that he might not be as sick as he seems. Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is coming of age in his faith, and is dealing with his rabbi father during his Bar Mitzvah preparations. Outsider Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is tough and tender and looking for his place in the world after his parents’ death at the hands of Maine racists. New kid Ben struggles to fit in, being both a history nerd and an avid New Kids on the Block fan, and falls for Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who is going through some serious shit at home thanks to her abusive father. Outside of maybe Stanley, each of the kids is given an absolutely satisfying arc, and they’re a joy to watch work together. They have a realistic feel about their comings and goings, and their dialogue isn’t the kind of shit that too-old screenwriters feel is accurate to How Kids Talk. The ensemble transforms this from a pretty mediocre little film to something that verges on greatness.
It’s a damn shame that this project will always have its aborted predecessor hanging over it, but this is about as good as a work as any other filmmaker besides Fukunaga could do. And I’m hesitant to truly rag on this film, given that it’s the first installment of a two-part story that was planned that way from the start (one wonders what that a dual continuity four-hour cut would wind up looking like if WB and Muschetti ever decided to go for it). The inescapable fact is that It really is very good, and aside from minor quibbles about the atmosphere, it’s sure to delight King heads, fans of the original, and dorks like me who have no real attachment to either. This is the anti-Dark Tower, and thank god for that.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.