It’s a nutty experience watching Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of the Stephen King book Dreamcatcher (Warner Bros.): What the blazes is this thing? The novel itself has little internal logic. King is dreamily free-associating, which doesn’t mean he’s plumbing his unconscious in search of new nightmare archetypes; it means he’s recycling bits of old horror and sci-fi flicks and even setups from his own novels. This one resembles King’s It (which itself is like “The Stand By Me Kids vs. The Monster”), but it also filches ideas from the movies Alien (1979), the John Carpenter remake of The Thing (1982), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Hidden (1987), and even the overheated plague picture Outbreak (1995).
It’s a mystery how such a hodgepodge, at once incoherent and overfamiliar, could have come together on screen. Kasdan (working from a scenario devised by William Goldman) has chosen to tell the story in a leisurely, classical style, putting faith in the narrative itself—evidently hoping that these hand-me-down strands will somehow coalesce into a tight web of horror. But it would take a lame insect indeed to be ensnared in this raggedy-ass shambles.
The first part of the movie has a pleasantly one-thing-after-another quality, and there is a sort of suspense: What is this movie about? Dreamcatcher opens with four episodes in the lives of four 30ish Maine friends—Henry (Thomas Jane), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), Pete (Timothy Olyphant), and Beaver (Jason Lee)—who have a vaguely telepathic rapport and some stray paranormal abilities. A flashback reveals that these powers date from the day that, as kids, they saved a runty, stuttering child known as Duddits from a bunch of older bullies attempting to make him eat poop.
Hearing the voice of Duddits, Jonesy strolls into traffic and is flattened by a car. But wait, six months later he’s alive, and the four buddies are heading off on their annual winter hunting trip into the woods of Maine. It’s here that an already fragmented story splinters off into yet more tributaries, each suggesting a different genre. First the four banter for a while in Quentin Tarantino-like fashion about movies. Then, as a storm moves in, Jonesy and Beaver encounter a disoriented man (Eric Keenleyside) with a spidery rash who says he’s lost in the woods. After he emits a series of titanic, gurgling belches and farts, it becomes increasingly likely that what he has is no ordinary gastrointestinal virus. The eellike creature with gnashing teeth that eventually rockets from his rectum is another clue. Soon a Disney-esque assortment of animals (bears, rabbits, deer, raccoons) goes bounding by the snowbound cabin while Army choppers overhead announce that the area has been quarantined.
Then comes a long, long scene in which the fanatical Col. Curtis (Morgan Freeman) hectors his second-in-command, Owen (Tom Sizemore), on the subject of his record of battling extraterrestrials and blows the fingers off a young soldier whom he suspects of being too nice to an infected woman. While the population of central Maine is herded into a camp for presumed extermination by the Army “blue boys,” Jonesy’s body is possessed by an English-accented alien known as “Mr. Gray,” who needs directions to I-95. Luckily, part of Jonesy’s mind (represented by a giant, old-fashioned storage library in which different memories are assigned to different aisles), remains in his control, which means that he might be able to reach out telepathically to his buddies before Mr. Gray gets to the interstate and blankets the Eastern Seaboard with alien parasites.
Somehow, Duddits—who actually mentioned Mr. Gray as a boy, although his speech defect made the name come out as “Mr. Gay”—is at the center of this maelstrom. Can the grown, cancer-ridden Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) hold the key to stopping this plague? Was the telepathic link among the four boys intended to forestall an intergalactic war?
The temptation to give the movie points for weirdness is strong. Maybe if Dreamcatcher had come in at 90 action-packed, asshole-busting minutes, it would have gone down as a head movie on the order of Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). But at two-and-a-quarter hours, it’s unconscionably pokey. I felt sorry for the editors, Carol Littleton and Raúl Dávalos, during the climax: They have to stretch out Jonesy/Mr. Gray’s attempt to pry open a reservoir manhole so he can infect the populace while the rest of the cast rolls around in the snow and has gunfights and helicopter chases: “Ughhh, this is heeeeeavy”—CLANK. Rat-tat-tat. Blam, blam, blam. “Almoooost got it”—CLANK. Blam! Rat-tat-tat! “Drop that manhole cover, Mr. Gay!”
The four young heroes do their manly best, though it’s a shame that the most colorless of them (Thomas Jane) emerges as the action hero, while the more idiosyncratic Lee and Olyphant fall by the wayside. Freeman tries to play an over-the-top character naturalistically, which kills the momentum of the army scenes—and they need all the momentum they can get. Sizemore looks as if he wandered onto the set at the last minute: Is the character getting messages beamed into his head by extraterrestrials, or is the actor getting lines whispered into his ear by a script girl?
The FX guys have devised some great squiggly thingummies, and the pivotal toilet-bowl scene has a black-comic charge you’re not likely to forget. Maybe that’s appropriate: I am tempted to say that what King has concocted, consciously or not, is an elaborate allegory for homosexual panic, complete with anal intrusion by toothy phalluses and a resulting (Mr.) Gay Plague. There are practically no women in the picture: It all comes down to four buddies, a frail momma’s boy with a terminal disease, and a bunch of “blue boys” devising a sort of catcher’s mitt for killer eels and worms—
No, sorry, I can’t go on. As Bill Murray put it in Tootsie (1982), “We’re getting into a weird area here.” Maybe Gus Van Sant could have run with it. But Kasdan is boringly straight, so whatever is really at the core of Dreamcatcher remains well, er, impacted.