Starring: James McAvoy (Split), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), Bill Hader (Barry), Isaiah Mustafa (Shadowhunters), Jay Ryan (Beauty & The Beast), James Ransone (Sinister), Andy Bean (Power), Bill Skarsgård (Assassination Nation)
Director: Andy Muschietti (Mama)
Writer: Gary Dauberman (Annabelle)
Runtime: 2 hours 49 minutes
Release Date: 6th September (US, UK)
When people talk about Stephen King’s It, much of the praise lies during its segments set during the Losers’ Club’s childhood encounters with the unsettling Pennywise. The second half, focused on the characters now as adults, is generally where fans of the book and the 1990 miniseries say things begin to fall apart. So whilst it was a smart decision for the filmmakers of the 2017 film adaptation to focus exclusively on the childhood storyline for the first instalment, they ultimately just kicked the can on tackling the trickier subject matter. Now with critical acclaim and box office success raising the stakes for Chapter Two, the big question surrounding the film is not only how it brings this tale of childhood trauma and fear to a close, but also how it addresses the issues that made its source material a disappointment to many. In execution, It Chapter Two does an admirable job of elevating its subpar inspiration into something engaging, but it can’t help but pale in comparison to its predecessor.
As an adaptation of the novel, Chapter Two stays faithful in spirit to the original story and boldly includes even some of the zanier concepts many filmmakers would try to avoid, but it also makes smart and welcome changes where it counts. The film is even keenly aware of its shortcomings and expectations, as dramatised through a running joke with novelist Bill (McAvoy) being consistently reminded that his stories often don’t have satisfying endings (which could apply as a criticism of any number of King novels). The story has been streamlined without losing its identity, though it does overlook some key aspects of the novel that were hinted at in the first instalment. Despite running close to three hours, It Chapter Two rarely suffers from pacing issues and is far too bonkers to ever be considered boring. The film’s main shortcoming is that it hits too many of the same beats as the first, especially as the formula of “character is alone, sees or hears something strange, gets drawn in with increasing tension, then something scary jumps at them before going away” gets picked for all its worth. However, when the film dives into new territory and embraces the nutty aspects of the source material, it begins to stand out. At moments, this is easily one of the more bizarre and outrageous blockbusters in recent memory, and I wish it embraced that side of itself more rather than rehashing what worked before.
What secured the first chapter of It as an instant classic was the fantastic performances of its lead cast of child actors, who all return here and are as solid as ever during flashback sequences. However, much of the film is focused on their adult counterparts, and they are unfortunately not quite as consistently solid. James McAvoy’s Bill is a bit of mixed bag, fluctuating between decent but underwhelming and cartoonishly crazed; it often reminded me of his performances in Split and Glass, and not in a good way. Isaiah Mustafa is also a bit off as Mike, with the character’s fanaticism played a bit too on the nose, and despite his character’s key role in the plot he again disappears for much of the story’s second act. Jay Ryan is decent enough as the now-handsome Ben, but there’s very little evidence of Jeremy Ray Taylor’s performance in his characterisation, with his personality now whittled down to merely “has a crush on Beverly” in the present-day storyline.
On the opposite end, James Ransone is not only fantastic as the adult Eddie but does an uncanny job of incorporating Jack Dylan Grazer’s mannerisms into his performance, absolutely making the character his own whilst respecting the work of his counterpart. Jessica Chastain similarly captures the core of Sophia Lillis’ Beverly whilst also extrapolating on her, giving further depths to her continued traumatised existence. However, the film’s MVP is easily Bill Hader as Ritchie. Not only is he a believable analog to Finn Wolfhard’s performance and brings much of the film’s humour, but he also puts in a tortured and relatable dramatic performance that many audiences may not have seen Hader pull off. Whilst the handling of his subplot is clumsy from a storytelling perspective (it’s hard to address without spoiling, but it’s another example of Hollywood trying to have its cake and eat it), Hader absolutely nails it from a performance perspective, and I hope this nets him more serious consideration for dramatic roles. Returning as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård is as eerie and grotesque as ever but, even as the film goes deeper into the history and rules of the titular creature, his performance remains relatively unchanged from the prior film. If you’ve seen the first film, you know what to expect from Pennywise and the results are still satisfyingly gruesome, but I wish the character was given more opportunity to evolve rather than deliver more of the same.
The first It was one of the more visually arresting modern horror blockbusters, and those same sentiments can be shared for Chapter Two. Though it lacks the rich shadows and distinct foreboding camerawork that cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung brought to the first, Checco Varese does a decent job of emulating his style and brings a more dreamlike aesthetic to the picture, whilst Benjamin Wallfisch’s score continues to bring that perfect blend of horror movie creepiness and John Williams-like whimsy. Where this film really shines over the first is in its creature design, bringing new demented forms of Pennywise to the screen that are sure to inspire new nightmares for audiences. The visual effects that bring them all to life are equally impressive, and there’s nary a sign that extensive work has gone into de-aging the young cast for the flashback sequences.
It Chapter Two is a solid conclusion to the story began by its predecessor, but it is fighting an uphill battle right from the get go. As an adaptation of a notoriously kooky and unsatisfying half of an otherwise compelling novel, it manages to both excise and embrace its inspiration’s shortcomings in clever ways, but it can’t help but pale in comparison to the first. It Chapter One stands on its own as a gripping and haunting piece of horror cinema, whilst Chapter Two is incredibly beholden to the accomplishments of that film, and I can’t see future audiences watching it in isolation in the way the first part absolutely can; it’s more of a companion piece or an expansion pack than a full-fledged successor. Ultimately, what It Chapter Two does is prove no story, no matter how inherently wacky and absurd, can’t be mined and improved into something better, and hopefully that’s a lesson future Stephen King adaptations can use as a blueprint. Now…Maximum Overdrive remake, anyone?
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10