I have gone on record saying that Gore Verbinski's The Ring is my favorite (note: not best) movie of all time. Because nothing in pop culture dies anymore, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood exhumed the long-cooled corpse of this franchise in order to squeeze out one last whiff of dusty marrow from its skeleton. Rings, the unimaginative title of this unasked-for sequel, is the result. The good news is that it's not that bad. The bad news is that it still totally sucks. As a super-fan of the original, I'm unsurprised.
Holt (Alex Roe) is a college freshman who gets inveigled into a shadowy underground society that is obsessed with learning the secrets behind Samara Morgan's cursed videotape, led by "experimental biology" professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki). His high school sweetheart, Julia (Matilda Lutz), receives a disturbing Skype call from a girl named Skye (Aimee Teegarden) who warns Julia that Holt is in danger.
Julia speeds up to Spokane to come to Holt's rescue, only to be tricked by Skye into following her home, where she is murdered by the ghost of Samara. Julia was intended to be Skye's "tail," or the unfortunate soul doomed to receive the curse of the ring, relieving the original recipient of said curse. Not terribly interested in her own survival, Julia volunteers to be Holt's tail and watches the tape, saving him from certain doom, but kicking off the seven-day countdown until her own death. Julia and Holt, with Gabriel's help, race to learn more about Samara's past and to save Julia's life.
Rings follows the template set by the first film, which was a huge success. But since it has been 15 years since the original debuted, a little retread for the newer generation doesn't hurt. What Rings lacks that Verbinski's film had in spades is atmosphere. The Ring was set in Seattle, a place that is famous or reviled for its constant rain, depending on your feelings about stormy weather. This gave the film a subtle sense of dread, that the world was weeping for its characters. You see the sun so little that when it finally pokes out, it's only to illuminate an autumnal tree from behind, causing it to look like it's on fire. The protagonist was a journalist, so we spend a lot of time watching her do old-fashioned research (with books and microfilm!), giving the first two-thirds of the film a slow burn of a pace that effectively leads up to the madness in its final act.
Rings, on the other hand, is about dummy kids who aren't old enough to drink, so they dive in headfirst without a terrible amount of thought. That seems to be the M.O. of newbie filmmaker, F. Javier Gutierrez, who directs the film like it's a 100-minute chase scene. Though the movie has a smaller budget than the original, it is constantly giving us money shots like rain falling upwards, cicadas bursting out of the ground, and that ghost girl climbing out of screens left and right. In The Ring, a grand total of two characters fall victim to Samara, whereas this film begins with an entire plane full of people dying because she shows up (a plot point that has precisely nothing to do with the rest of the film). The breakneck clip at which this movie speeds along means that we get zero-to-no dialogue beyond characters explaining to each other what has happened, is happening, and is about to happen. Except for our introduction to the teen lovers, who have a stultifying conversation about the Orpheus myth that also goes nowhere.
The one compelling contribution to the series that Rings makes is the idea of the cursed tape - which has been transmuted into a Quicktime video - giving certain viewers a different experience from others. As a Ring nerd, this changeup caught me by surprise and led down an interesting line of thought: when we empathize with someone else's trauma, should we not also be traumatized ourselves in some way? Unfortunately, the path the film follows with this small innovation brings us right back to the status quo and ready for more sequels, this being a profitable venture and all. Rings also plays fast and loose with the mythos established by the previous two films, digging back into Samara's past and cherry-picking which details are most convenient. I usually don't care about this sort of thing, but if a movie is going to sandblast its cinematic history, at least do it completely.
All of this mostly negative talk aside, Rings is still competently made, which gives it points in light of the existence of movies like The Bye Bye Man, a film that can't walk and chew gum simultaneously. Lutz's performance is serviceable, although her American accent isn't. The casting director must have said, "Bring me an Alicia Vikander!" and didn't bother to listen to her talk. Roe is at least on par with Martin Henderson's blandsomeness, and it's a nice change to see Galecki as a professor with some shades to his personality (Teegarden, in her few scenes, reaffirms the assertion that she wasn't on Friday Night Lights because she deserved an Emmy). Even Vincent D'Onofrio shows up later on as a font of exposition who is more than meets the eye.
That is all the faint praise with which I will damn Rings. It currently has a 24 on Metacritic, which is execrable and less than it deserves. This being said, Rings doesn't deserve much, although it's a shine better than The Ring Two. Consider the bar lowered.