'Dreamcatcher' can't excuse being awful

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

''Dreamcatcher'' is unspeakably bad -- and shockingly so -- considering that it's an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, from the director of ''The Big Chill'' (Lawrence Kasdan) and the writer of ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'' (William Gold-man).

These are people who have Oscars and Oscar nominations, people who have worked in this business long enough that there's no plausible explanation for a film that is so woefully unfocused and misguided.

The story of four longtime friends in rural Maine who communicate telepathically is all over the place. It starts out with glimmers of ''Stand By Me'' and ends up as a rehash of ''Alien.'' In between, it can't decide whether it's an inspirational, supernatural drama or a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi thriller, and never fully succeeds at becoming either.

There's hope in the beginning, though, when we meet the four friends -- professor Jonesy (Damian Lewis), psychiatrist Henry (Thomas Jane), car salesman Pete (Timothy Olyphant) and carpenter Beaver (Jason Lee).

When they call each other on the phone, they know who's on the other end before picking it up, and they sense ahead of time when another member of their group is in potential danger. It's a gift that was transferred to them as children from a mentally retarded friend named Duddits (played as an adult by Donnie Wahlberg), whom they rescued from a bully attack.

This alone could have been a spooky, intriguing premise for a movie, even though we've traveled this psychic territory in King adaptations before. (As if it weren't obvious who the author is behind ''Dreamcatcher,'' a flashback scene to 20 years earlier, when the friends walk along a railroad track, takes us back to ''Stand By Me.'' Similarly, moments when the foursome is isolated and snowbound are reminiscent of ''The Shining.'')

But then the aliens come -- or rather, the people carrying alien spawns. While the four buddies are on vacation in the woods, a stranger stumbles upon their cabin with red splotches on his face and incessant gastrointestinal rumblings -- the result of eating wild berries, he believes.

His condition deteriorates rapidly, and in no time an otherworldly creature has burst from his backside. But that's just the beginning -- the serpent, and others like it, are the minions of aliens who have come to Earth to contaminate the water system. Soon Col. Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) is soaring above the landscape in a helicopter with his second-in-command (Tom Sizemore), trying to rid the woods of the creatures and the red, bubbling fungus they create -- which is known as the ''Ripley,'' Curtis explains, named for Sigourney Weaver's character in the ''Alien'' movies.

And right then and there, we're yanked from the film and plunked down in reality. We were before, simply because the movie is so ridiculous. But this and other pop culture references remind us that this is a movie that knows it's a movie, which shatters any early supernatural vibe.

By this point, though, the ESP has grown conspicuously selective among the four friends. One of the aliens takes over Jonesy's body and forces him to speak in a broad British accent, and none of his friends perceives this.

As if this weren't campy enough, Curtis -- on the brink of an insanity that's never really explained -- shoots off the finger of a soldier who lies to him, then says cheekily, ''I lost my temper.'' Lee and Olyphant know how to pull off this kind of dark humor, but it feels awkward on everyone else.

We can only hope that the humor is intended, though, because everything else about ''Dreamcatcher'' seems so haphazard.

''Dreamcatcher,'' a Warner Bros. film, is rated R for violence, gore and language. Running time: 131 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.

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