OCTOBER 24, 2008
Since I have watched about 400 horror movies since Saw IV, I watched it again yesterday afternoon to prepare for Saw V; refreshing my memory with the loose plot threads: who was alive, who was dying, and who was simply MIA (that one is still, and may forever be, Cary Elwes' character of Dr. Gordon). And I found that I actually liked it more a 2nd time. While I've always had trouble picking a favorite, IV would have been the one I would immediately took out of consideration, but not anymore. It was a lot of fun a 2nd time around, and credit to both Darren Bousman and writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, I once again found the ending a real nailbiter, even though I knew what was going to happen. I was actually hoping that Riggs would figure out the riddle and keep Matthews' head from getting squished this time.
Anyway, after viewing V, I can DEFINITELY say that this is NOT my favorite, nor will it ever be. And if you're familiar with the Saw films (and my reviews for them), you'll know that spoilers are almost impossible to avoid, so read forward with caution!
Unlike the last couple films, we are actually treated to a sort of "previously, on Saw" sequence as the film begins. Agent Strahm's seeming capture (and death of Jeff) are repeated in full, which brings us up to speed right off the bat, a nice touch. And the next half hour or so lives up to the Saw standard. We get a twist (another "you've been watching a flashback!" type one), and the traditional two plot setup is laid out. The "A" story is, of course, Hoffman trying to make sure Strahm doesn't find out that he is working with Jigsaw. In what may be the film's best scene (and the most badass resolution to a "trap scene" in the series' history), Strahm proves that he is not going to be so easy to dispatch, and a seemingly intense game of cat and mouse begins. The "B" story is similar to that of Saw II, in that a group of strangers wake up in yet another dungeon, and have to figure out why they were chosen, what they have in common, etc.
So far, so good, right? But I dunno, something just goes off the rails. I was having a lot of fun at first, but then, suddenly, I realized I didn't care anymore about what was going on. Part of the problem is that the "B" story never really gels into the "A" story, or even the story of any of the other films. For the first time in a sequel, there seems to be a new plot thread emerging that is, shock, unrelated to anything or anyone we've already encountered. The big reveal over how these new people are connected to each other is pretty anticlimactic, because it's a reveal that means nothing to us. We can ASSUME that it's merely the setup for part VI, but that's really not in line with Saw tradition, and I began wondering why the characters didn't just figure it out sooner, rather than turn it into a reveal that had no significance to us. I admire that Marcus and Patrick* (who have blink or you'll miss it cameos) are trying to move away from the sort of revisionist/rewriting history stuff that the sequels have increasingly dove into headfirst, and you can't really blame them for trying to move on and open up the story a bit, but it feels jarring to have half the film devoted to a plot that doesn't seem connected. At least, not yet.
See, they've always left plot threads open, and the climax of each film has always set up the next one, but for the first time it really feels like they are only giving us half a movie, rather than a sort of contained story that fits into the big picture. Even III, with its "Your daughter has an hour to live" or whatever ending, felt more satisfying a climax than the one presented here.
And that's not the only problem with the finale. The tagline for this one is "You won't believe how it ends", and that is true, because I can't believe the end of this film is almost an exact replica of the one in IV. Once again, we have 3 law enforcement guys (hell, 2 of them are the same ones from IV's ending) walking around hallways and dark rooms, and the audience is scrambling to try to figure out where they are in relation to one another. And then the one we are rooting for does something that you think is the right move, but turns out to spell his doom while the bad guy gets away. The second I heard the traditional "Dundun DUNNN!" theme start up, which signals the end of the film, I was dumbfounded; "It's ending HERE?"
Again, with nearly everyone dead at this point, there really is no choice but to start up major storylines and introduce several new characters, so I can't fault the writers for doing just that. But again, it still feels way too unresolved (I won't even get into the non subplot of Jigsaw's wife and her box, a dangling plot thread that left several people particularly angry as they were walking out of the theater). If this was a TV show it would be one thing, but we have to wait a full year to not only know what happens in certain plot lines, but also know why the hell we should care about them in the first place? That's not cool. The 5 strangers are never really developed beyond their first names and what they do for a living, and while they are killed off in an order I found surprising (my pick for last man standing got offed almost instantly), their detachment from the Saw mythos (so it seems) and the rather uncreative traps in their scenes resulted in me wondering why they were in the film at all.
Speaking of the traps, I would think that since director David Hackl was the production designer on the films that he would have some really good ones here, but no dice. The only really memorable one is the initial trap for the 5 strangers, and even that is sort of similar to the "tug of war" mausoleum one in IV (except split 5 ways). The others are forgettable, and shockingly un-gory as well; this is by far the least bloody in the series. Not that I'm complaining - the torture scenes are the least interesting thing about these movies. Once I understand how the Rube Goldberg-esque trap works, I tune out; I could care less about seeing a guy spend 60 seconds injuring himself trying to get free.
Plus, Hackl has no real visual style, or if he does, he neglects to really show it here. Bousman and James Wan gave the series a consistent look while adding their own unique flair to each film (such as color schemes, note how Bousman goes from brown-yellow in II to the green/blues of III and finally the reddish look of IV). But this film is pretty bland looking; there are some occasional shots that impress (such as Strahm in his trap), and he keeps the film moving for the most part, but it's the first film in the series where I never once caught myself admiring (or even disliking) a directorial choice, because it was pretty much by-the-numbers from start to finish (I also missed the crazy transitions from IV). I originally found it odd that someone else was already chosen to direct VI before this one was even finished, but now I can kind of see why. I also couldn't help but wonder if some of the story lapses were a result of the removal of dull footage, since Patrick and Marcus have been 3-3 IMO (Saw IV and the two Feast films). I am curious if this one has a lot of excised footage that will magically resurface in time to help promote the release of the next film. Someone send me the script!!!
It's not a total loss, however. Like I said, the first 30 minutes or so are great, as we learn more about Hoffman's relationship with Jigsaw, get some nice shoutouts and traditional "let's see that scene from part __ in a new light" stuff, etc. Plus, I think this is the first sequel to mention Danny Glover's character, which was much appreciated. Also, I dug how the "B" plot was essentially a Saw version of The Weakest Link; each trap required one person to die, so it was fun to see everyone planning ahead. Do you get rid of your biggest competitor early on, or lose the dead weight? I almost wish there were 8 folks like in II, instead of just 5, so that there could be even more of this strategic survival stuff. And after the nearly incomprehensible last film, I appreciated the more traditional storytelling this time around; there isn't much that will confuse you as long as you are paying attention (hell, the end of the film barely qualifies as a twist, IMO).
I suppose that we should be lucky that it took this long for such a rushed series to lose steam. But that's precisely what made the series so great; they managed to churn out a film a year that lived up to its predecessor(s) three times now. It's sort of expected that even with the compressed time, the team would deliver. And who knows, maybe the plots that this film set up will make for a great part VI (which will in turn give this one a new lease on life). Still, nothing can change the fact that this one lacks the visual style and enjoyable feeling that the filmmakers are always two steps ahead of you. Here's hoping that VI finishes the series off in style, or at least gets it back on track if they decide to make a VII.
What say you?
*An odd factoid I want to point out; the movie trailers before the film were for MARCUS Nispel's Friday the 13th, PATRICK Lussier's My Bloody Valentine remake, and PATRICK Tatopoulos' Underworld 3. I dunno, I thought that was strange. And MBV actually looks pretty good, which is even stranger.