It's a well-made Hollywood movie. If that's all you're looking for, you've come to the right place. Yes sir, this is definitely product. There are thousands of movies like it, all perfectly good in their run-of-the-mill way and none of them particularly worth your time.
If we're looking for reasons to watch it, the main one's probably Michelle Pfeiffer. She's really good. Everyone loves Pfeiffer, don't they?
After her, the next reason would be Robert Zemeckis's homage to Alfred Hitchcock. It's like a game he's playing. If it weren't for the script getting it wrong, this would practically feel like a missing 1950s Hitchcock. For starters, Michelle Pfeiffer's exactly the kind of blonde he loved to cast, like Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak. Just look at those cheekbones. Besides, there's something screamingly 1950s about that huge, expensive lakeside house and antiseptic lifestyle. It just looks right, even before you get on to the story elements and even specific shots that have been stolen from Vertigo
, Rear Window
and apparently also Spellbound. (I haven't seen that one.) There's a lot of fun to be had, particularly in Act One, from just watching Zemeckis riff on the master.
The film cheats like Hitchcock. It looks like Hitchcock. I was enjoying all that a good deal. However it all disappears down the plughole as soon as the film starts relying on the supernatural, which is absolutely not like Hitchcock. It's a ghost story. Hitch never did that. He'd have had real killers and no oogie-boogie explanations. As far as I was concerned, the movie could hardly have torpedoed its Hitchcock vibe more thoroughly had it had Daleks come out of the lake.
To be honest, I get the feeling that the Hitchcock homage is entirely Zemeckis's idea. He saw things he could play with in a script that had already been written. However the supernatural aspect is wrong and the ending is worse. It's limp, frankly. It's entirely predictable, drawn out too long and largely dependent on blind luck rather than anyone doing anything clever. You know in advance who's going to live, who's going to die and even how and where. Hitchcock wouldn't have allowed that either.
The music's cliched at a couple of moments too.
All that said, there are some interesting things going on. You could play a Water Motif drinking game, for instance. Every time the film shows us some water, drink 1cc of alcohol. (Warning: know your limits and be prepared to abandon the game if in danger of sickness, death or permanent liver damage.) There are also lots of mirrors and glass, which might perhaps be connected to the water.
I also liked the mirroring of Pfeiffer's character with other women in the film. That's the main reason why I quite like the film's massive cheat, for instance. It's quite interesting to think back afterwards and look at all the ways in which Pfeiffer was in fact seeing a reflection of herself, or else possible reasons why "she looked like me".
Fundamentally it's Pfeiffer's film and she carries it like a pro. She's still got that amazing face and she knows how to lead the camera around on a string. Look at the scene where she's scary, for instance. Wow. Harrison Ford on the other hand puzzles me. He's a plain actor, almost stolid, and the scene in the film where he seems most natural is when he's out on the lake, on a boat. There are all kinds of things another actor might have done with this role that Ford simply isn't bothering with. However in fairness his character is a bit of a geek, a scientist who puts a great deal into his work and isn't always fully in the moment, so I suppose he's being true to the text. You'd never describe it as a flashy performance, but it's realistic and wherever possible avoiding movie moments. I honestly don't know. Maybe he was sleepwalking through the film, or maybe these are profound characterisation choices. Maybe it's a bit of both. However in the end it's an interesting role for him and you'll always be watching him no matter what happens, because he's Harrison Ford.
Apparently Pfeiffer and Ford were Zemeckis's first and only choices for the leads, by the way.
Commercially it did well. It played right through the summer and took nearly 300 million worldwide on a budget of 100 million, despite having a trailer which spoiled its entire first half. Seriously, don't watch that. Also Zemeckis made this film in the middle of Cast Away, during the production break he'd scheduled for Tom Hanks to grow a beard and lose lots of weight.
I wouldn't call this a bad film. It's well made, I quite enjoyed it and it has a couple of nasty shocks. However on the downside it's also bland Hollywood formula with a predictable ending. Personally I think this film desperately needed to be Japanese. Seriously, think about it. Ghost story, lots of water, spooky shit happening in an isolated location in a film that may or may not be trying to be horror... Japan could have blown this through the back of the theatre, especially if they'd completely done their brains and also attempted the Hitchcock homage.
Would I recommend this? To buy, absolutely not. However if happens to be on TV, you could give it a go if there doesn't seem to be anything better. Full marks to Zemeckis for trying something, at least.