Rings tries to turn Samara into a modern viral video, but it forgets to include the internet.
The Ring is one of the very few remakes that’s arguably better than the original. Considering that Ringu, the 1998 Japanese film, sparked a decade-long revival in Japanese horror, that’s a bold statement. But Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, with its moody saturated blues and greens, dark psychosis, and ever-present threat of viral madness, had all the ingredients of a lasting horror classic.
So the latest sequel, Rings, has a lot to live up to — especially considering it’s arriving 15 years after The Ring. (It’s probably safe to say most people have forgotten that the 2005 sequel, The Ring 2, even existed.)
Does Rings deliver? Not quite, but the effort isn’t without merit. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez (Before the Fall) has several elements in place for a quality follow-up — in particular, the sumptuous, slightly surreal production design and moody, steady pacing of the first film. That alone may be worth the price of admission to Ring fans and horror-lovers.
But just like the characters in The Ring franchise, who struggle to outlast the fate that comes for them after seven days, Rings is locked in an inevitable struggle against the passage of time. It’s a fight Gutiérrez doesn’t do enough to win.
Rings gets off to a stilted, disjointed start
Rings opens in the weirdest way: with three totally disparate opening sequences in a row, two of which feel completely disconnected from both each other and the rest of the film. We start with a scene in which the curse of the Ring — you watch a creepy video, and seven days later, you die horribly — brings down an entire airplane. This scene is a campy romp that feels like it was cut from the most recent Final Destination film and stuck onto the beginning of this one; it has only a threadbare connection to the rest of the film. Still, it does establish that our iconic child ghost-villain Samara (contortionist Bonnie Morgan) is still stringy-haired, waterlogged, and evil.
From there we meet two side characters at a flea market discussing an old VHS player; one of them, a biology professor named Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), watches the creepy old VHS tape he finds after buying it, after which he witnesses a surreal upside-down rainstorm. Gorgeous and quiet, this scene ably sets the tone for the rest of the film — before it’s immediately disrupted by yet a third, completely different opening, this one a garishly lit bedroom scene doing its best to channel a mid-2000s Nicholas Sparks movie.
It’s such a weird tonal whiplash that it takes a while to realize the movie has actually settled on the two lovebirds in this final scene as its plot-drivers: college-bound Holt (Alex Roe) and girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz). Holt goes off to college and promptly disappears. Julia, worried about him, goes to search for him in his dorm room and decides to look for answers at his next lecture, which happens to be taught by Gabriel. Julia is suspicious that Gabriel isn’t telling the truth about not having seen Holt, so after class she decides to follow him.
(This all plays out very weirdly on screen; it doesn’t help that as Julia, Lutz often speaks and acts without any emotional inflection, as if she’s wading through a lucid dream.)
Julia discovers that Gabriel is offering incentives to students to watch the cursed video so he can study the effects of what happens next. Gabriel is then supposed to arrange a “tail” for them — that is, find a new student who agrees to watch the video and take on the curse from them.
It turns out that Holt has watched the video, and hasn’t been missing so much as strategically avoiding Julia for her own protection — so naturally, Julia heroically becomes his “tail.” She also immediately becomes obsessed with the video’s subject, particularly when she realizes that her copy of the video has mutated: It’s showing her images no one else has seen, a “video within a video.”
From there, Rings treads roughly the same lines as the original film and its sequel, returning to the rain-soaked rural Pacific Northwest to uncover more dark secrets about Samara’s past as Julia and Holt try to outrun the curse.
Rings tries to re-contextualize Samara’s violence, but it doesn’t really work
Note: some major spoilers for Rings follow.
In many ways, Rings is a sequel for fans.
You don’t necessarily have to know all about the franchise to enjoy it, but fans in particular should be pleased by the return to Samara’s past — in particular, Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as a counselor who’s wary of Samara’s spectral influence over the town she once inhabited. In each of the preceding films, we learned that first Samara’s real mother, Evelyn (Kayli Carter), and later her adopted mother had tried to drown her after realizing that she was evil and possibly supernatural. Rings gives us yet more crucial background context for Evelyn’s decision: She was kidnapped and held in isolated captivity for months, and Samara was the product of her horrifying rape and abduction.
In choosing this plot trope, Rings follows a recent film trend that seems to be inspired by the emergence of real-life cases in which men held women captive for years. Films like Martyrs, Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Don’t Breathe, and Split have all involved predatory men holding women out of sight in deep lockdown; most of these films have dealt sensitively with the topic, or at least had interesting things to say about the ways in which the patriarchy asserts itself on the individual bodies of the women subjected to it in these extreme scenarios.
Rings attempts to re-contextualize Samara’s outsized violence as a direct result of, and reaction to, male patriarchy and the horror to which her mother was subjected. But beyond that it doesn’t have much to say on the subject, using it to drum up sympathy for Samara and her mother without really developing their characterizations beyond introducing more trauma.
Rings’ all-male team of screenwriters seems to want to portray femininity as a unifying force that allows Julia to see and have sympathy for Samara and her plight, but the film doesn’t develop either character enough for this connection to seem meaningful. Naomi Watts’ character in The Ring had depth and conflict and a rich life; Julia is just “Holt’s girlfriend,” and that’s it.
You could argue that Julia’s obsession with Samara has a kind of feminist undertone: like many horror films before it, including The Ring, it posits female fellowship as a way forward. But in Rings this fellowship is doomed to failure as a narrative tool, because the script never gave the women involved identities of their own to begin with.
Instead of lingering on characterizations, Gutiérrez lingers on imagery. He revisits and adds to the surreal, Buñuel-esque images of the famous cursed video sequence, as well as the franchise’s lush, dark setting. It’s all done in homage to The Ring, but despite Gutiérrez’s attention to the original’s aesthetic, the story he’s telling feels lackluster as an update. This is mainly due to a weak script strung together by Gutiérrez’s episodic direction; but another huge factor is that the story’s treatment of Samara’s cursed video doesn’t feel modern at all.
Rings misses a huge opportunity to explore virality
Gutiérrez has previously said that he feels “the idea of a viral video could get crazy out of hand in a Ring story.” He chose instead to sidestep the seemingly logical transition of Samara’s cursed footage from VHS to digital media. But this choice feels utterly baffling, given that Professor Gabriel is running an underground ring of dozens of students who are all copying and passing on digital files of the film. In 2017, it’s absolutely impossible to believe that no one casually uploaded the video to YouTube and instantly spread Samara’s curse to millions of viewers.
Production costs aside, that the film doesn’t even acknowledge this possibility, let alone build it into its premise, makes it feel stilted and anachronistic. In conceptualizing how it feels to be inescapably pursued by something that’s embedded in your culture, 2015’s It Follows is a much better sequel to The Ring.
Comparing Rings with last year’s Japanese hybrid sequel The Ring vs The Grudge (Sadako vs Kayako), the Japanese version feels far more contemporary even though it foregoes the question of viral video altogether. That film, which made its U.S. debut last week on horror streaming site Shudder, exists in a universe where the curses of Ringu and its equally successful ghostly franchise-spawner, Ju-On (The Grudge), have survived not as viral videos but as viral urban legends — as memes rather than computer files. Thinking of Sadako/Samara as surviving in meme form like Slender Man feels more accurate to the franchise than the choice Rings makes to largely ignore the viral nature of the internet.
Rings and Sadako vs Kayako have similar, potentially symbolic endings. In the Japanese film, this final moment feels transcendent; in Rings, it feels unearned. Perhaps if it really sold Samara’s virality, Rings would have more power; as it is, translated through her relationships with tragedy and our bland protagonist, she just feels like a dull, worn-out copy.