Friday, April 29, 2011

Movie Review: "The Tommyknockers" (1993)

Momma always said life was like a box of ... wait, no, that's not right.

Momma said there'd be days like this, there'd be days like ... nope, uh-uh, that's not right, either.

Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be ... well, that sure as heck ain't right!

Ah!  I remember now: momma said if you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' a'tall, Mahfah.  Well, momma, I don't have a whole heck of a lot of nice things to say about the 1993 movie version of The Tommyknockers, but I think I might have just enough that I can avoid breaking that good old rule.

Let's find out, shall we?


The Tommyknockers is not a particularly good movie.  Let's just get that out in the open, okay?  There are too many characters, none of whom are developed very well, and the pace of the whole thing feels terribly off, moving either way too slow or way too fast and rarely getting it just right.  Additionally, it more or less guts the novel of all its nuance, and fails badly as an adaptation.

That said, it isn't entirely unsuccessful, and there are things that director John Power and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (who also adapted Carrie and It, as well as the movie version of Peter Straub's Ghost Story) did well.  For example, I quite like the cast, which includes Jimmy Smits, Marg Helgenberger, Joanna Cassidy, Traci Lords, and John Ashton, all of whom give good performances, to one degree or another.

Jimmy Smits plays Jim Gardener, and while he's not exactly the Gard my mind conjures up from the novel, that's okay; he doesn't have to be.  Cohen made massive changes to the relationship between Gard and Bobbi, changing them from estranged friends who share a semi-romantic connection but also (more importantly) share the simple bond of two troubled people who have latched onto one another for shelter from their own personal hells.  In King's novel, that bond has slipped into something no longer entirely active, and the novel is, in a way, defined by that relationship.  Seeing as how it's difficult to get that sort of backstory onto the screen without a large amount of time-consuming flashbacks, Cohen elected to simply make Gard and Bobbi live-in lovers.  In terms of making the story capable of being fit into three hours, this is an effective and sensible solution.

I'm less taken with the decision to keep the subtext of Gard's alcoholism, which in the novel -- along with Gard's obsession over nuclear energy (which gets barely any attention in the movie and ought to have gotten none at all rather than be given cursory attention) -- is probably the most important factor in the distance between Gardener and Bobbi.  I can understand Cohen's desire to keep as much of King's subtext intact as possible, but it might have been a more effective route to simply make the romance between the two characters the forefront: Jack and Rose had to battle the iceberg, Jim and Bobbi had to battle an alien ship, that sort of thing.

Regardless, Smits is quite good in the role.  No surprise there: Smits is pretty much always good, and it's a shame he hasn't been better-used by Hollywood.  Smits does exceedingly well with the scene sin which he is battling his alcoholism, and while there are a few scenes in which he and co-star Marg Helgenberger have virtually zero chemistry, I suspect that that is due to poor editing choices in selecting takes: because for the majority of the film, Smits and Helgenberger are great in their scenes together.

Helgenberger isn't as good as Smits, but she's not at all bad, and Bobbi Anderson suffered in Cohen's adaptation far more than Gard did.  Almost all of what makes Bobbi Bobbi in the novel has been shorn away: she isn't an outcast, she isn't a loner, she isn't an escapee from a dysfunctional family.  She still gets to be the de facto leader of the Havenites, but there's only a scene or two in which she gets to assert herself in any meaningful way, and those scenes are poorly-written and poorly-staged.  Helgenberger, then, had the deck stacked against her pretty heavily, and considering that, it's a wonder she was able to do anything useful with the character at all.  But she does: she is really good in the scenes in which her obsession with the ship come through, and extremely convincing in the scene in which she tells Gard about Pete's "death."

Nancy Voss is hardly the third-most important character, even in the movie, but I think I'll just go on ahead and talk about Traci Lords now.  Do ya know why Traci Lords was a notable name circa 1993?  If not, sir or madam as the case may be, Wikipedia is your friend; depending on your personal philosophies, Google Images may or may not be.  Let's just put it this way: Lords was at that time well-known by some.

I'm not one to judge, though, and in fact, ever since I became aware of who Lords was and what her story was -- thanks, in fact, to this movie -- I've always kinda rooted for her to succeed in so-called legit Hollywood.  Due to that sympathy, I'm willing to overlook how utterly awful she is in some scenes here.
Actually, strike that; she's not awful.  In fact, she does a great job of playing exactly what John Power and Cohen must have asked her to play: a super-slutty postal employee who makes a laser gun out of a lipstick and wears a red dress beneath a black one at a funeral.

Now, here's a fact of art, life, and nature: NOBODY could have been good in that role.  Impossible, unless someone of considerably greater skill -- Quentin Tarantino, for example -- had been directing.  But nobody was, and so, in those scenes, yeah, she's pretty bad ... but probably not as bad as some people would have been.  And hey, she is beautiful, and she is sexy, and she definitely knows how to work those charms on-screen, even while romancing Cliff DeYoung in what has to be one of the most preposterously unbelievable affairs ever committed to film.  I mean, Ron Jeremy is one thing, but Cliff DeYoung?  I call bullshit, John Power; I call bullshit.

Last note on Lords: I actually quite like all her scenes one she gets to start playing Nancy in her sick-makeup.  In those scenes, she's actually kinda menacing and believable.  Even then, she has to romance Robert Carradine -- better than DeYoung, but still quite iffy -- but she clearly relishes the opportunity to not have to play an out-and-out sexpot.

Also appearing in the movie is Joanna Cassidy as Ruth Merrill.  She was Ruth McCausland in the novel, you may remember; you may not remember that King gave her maiden name as Merrill.  This is an example of the kind of detail Cohen was good at putting in.  I'm not sure why the name was changed, but Cohen clearly strove to keep as close to the novel as possible in renaming her.  Cassidy is good, as always, and you can almost believe her romance with John Ashton, who is even less likely a Don Juan than Cliff DeYoung.

I like the change Cohen made to Ruth's character that caused her to end up in Bobbi's shed, taking the place of Anne Anderson, Bobbi's sister, who was eliminated from the movie.  That's a good change; one of the cardinal rules of adapting a novel to a screenplay is that when possible to do so, it is a good idea to compress multiple characters into one, to save on time and money and effort.

I'm less thrilled by Ruth's dolls.  They're creepy, sure, but here, they seem to have something supernatural about them even before the alien ship is unearthed.  Early on, a child is scared by the sight of one of the dolls moving.  The scene is probably intended to represent the child's imagination taking hold, rather than an actual supernatural manifestation, but the distinction would be fuzzy even for people who's read the book; those who haven't would be just confused.

Another good change: having Becka Paulson be Ruth's deputy.  It even kinda works for Becka to receive her instructions from a game-show host on the television, rather than from Jesus.  The casting of Moonlighting's Allyce Beasley, however, did not work at all.  I love that show, warts and all, but Beasley was never one of its high points for me, and while I can believe that Cliff DeYoung would cheat on her with Traci Lords, I can believe her as a cop about as much as I can believe that my toenails are going to fall off and begin singing "Born to Run" at me.

Some details of the production design work well: the aliens themselves are creepy, and the effect still look pretty good for '93 tv; also, the effects on the gadgets, particularly the hands-free typewriter, are quite good.  The ship itself, though?  Awful.  Looks like a bunch of those things Olympian medal-winners stand on when receiving their medals, just with some dirt thrown over them. 

And while I'm carping, howsabout the scene in the vet's office?  Somebody's got an owl with them in the waiting room, and I think there's a cobra or something, too; it's the most diverse clientele of any small-town vet's office in history.  If the director had had a fucking seal in the background, hooting and clapping, it wouldn't have surprised me too much.

So, yeah, The Tommyknockers is hardly one for the Hall of Fame.  However, it's got enjoyable parts to it, and I've certainly seen worse.  If you're a hardcore King fan, or a moderately hardcore sci-fi fan, it's probably worth seeing at least once.

Well, I think I'm finally done writing about The Tommyknockers for a while.  I think it's time to write something new over at You Only Blog Twice, so it might be a few days before I've got anything new here.  I'll be back in a few days, though, with a short look at Nightmares in the Sky.


  1. Interesting. Good post.

    I liked the movie a lot -- but I can see your objections.

    My favorite scene was when the kid can't get his brother to reappear. that's flat out awesome!

    No matter what you say, it can't be as bad as Langoliers.

    You were kind to . . . eh. . . smooth over (no, that's not the word!) exactly what little Tracie Lord's did! Boy, it got her ins oem serious trouble, too. Unfortunately, she wasn't very good in this movie.

    What makes the movie not work (too many characters) is the same thing that made the book drag. It's unfocused. King often does best with a tight cast, a family unit for example. Sometimes he can break free. UTD is an example, as is The Stand. But those are exceptions. And, though I enjoyed UTD, I have had no strong feelings to revisit it.

    Most disappointing to me was the space ship. It looks like slabs of cement. If King wanted it to be a 1940's sci-fi, why didn't they make the ship look more like -- well, a space ship!?

  2. Oh no, it is definitely not as bad as "The Langoliers." That movie is TERRIBLE. I think "The Tommyknockers" is a bad movie, but that's the critical side of me takig over; in terms of just plain old enjoyment, I like it just fine.

    I didn't care for the scene in which Hilly makes David disappear, because the child actor playing Hilly is ... well, he's just not very good. I always hate criticizing a child actor, although in this case, I guess he's all grown up by now. And anyways, a poor performance from a child actor is always (in my mind, at least) the director's fault, not the kid's.

    I'd intended to mention that plotline a bit in my post, but I got sidetracked and never got to it. One of the things I don't like about the movie is they removed the "Altair-4" aspect of it, and rather than have David disappear to that planet, he disappears onto the alien ship, where he apparently begins serving as a battery to rejuvenate the aliens. But I get why that change was made: finding the budget to film Altair-4 wouldn't have been easy back in '93.

    That was almost certainly the problem with the alien ship, also. It would have cost a LOT of money to build that huge ship and the massive dig site that went on around it. Even today, it would probably have to be done mostly as CGI; in '93, it was just not feasible on television.

    But did it have to look so bad? Ugh; inexcusable.

    As for ole Traci Lords, yeah, I feel a little bit bad even alluding to her background in porn. She may a terrible person, or she may be an absolute delight, I don't know, but either way I hate to continue the cultural process (even in so small a way as doing it on my blog) of painting her as a porn star gone legit. She's spent two decades now trying to put that behind her; maybe she deserves to have us let her.

    However, since it's obvious that the producers cast her in "The Tommyknockers" to capitalize on the sex appeal they probably thought it would generate -- and the ratings they probably hoped they might be able to boost by appealing to her fan base -- then I figure it's fair game for me to at least mention it and let people make up their own minds one way or another.

    And unlike you, I do actually kinda like her in some of the movie's scenes. In most of them, though, yeah, she's terrible. I maintain that no actress playing a sexy postal worker has any real hope for success, though.

    I definitely see your point about the novel being unfocused, and agree with it totally. And yes, the movie absolutely failed to avoid making the same mistakes. In fact, I'd say the movie did an even worse job of staying focused, if anything. The whole subplot with Hilly could have been eliminated entirely, and so could the Becka/Joe/Nancy plotline. But big television events during that time period always hinged on having big, impressive casts, so the overcrowdedness of the novel was undoubtedly part of its appeal for television execs!

    All in all, I quite enjoed the time I spent revisiting "The Tommyknockers." Both the book and the movie were remembered quite dimly by my brain, and both held up better than I'd expected (the novel moreso than the movie, but the movie, too, was better than I'd remembered).

    Thanks for reading!

  3. what exactly is the spaceship in the book? is there a good description?

  4. My memory of the book is still fresh enough that I was able to flip through it a bit and find some of the better descriptions of the ship for you. Here are their locations:

    Book II, Chapter 9 (The Funeral), Section 18
    Book II, Chapter 10 (A Boys of Days - The Town, Concluded), Section 3
    Book III, Chapter 3 (The Hatch), Section 1
    Book III, Chapter 6 (Inside the Ship)
    Book III, Chapter 9 (The Scoop, Concluded), Sections 9-10
    Book III, Chapter 10 (Tommyknockers, Knocking at the Door), Section 41-47

    I can't swear that that's all of them, but I think it'll have most of the major descriptions. King never exactly dwells on the description for long: he just gives you enough to form your own mental images.

    How the producers of the movie read any of this and then ended up with what they did in the movie is a mystery to me, budget concessions notwithstanding.

  5. See, I didn't find the novel to be all that unfocused. I can understand that assessment, truly. I was prepared to, but I found it to be much-more-tightly-plotted and inwardly-supporting than I expected.

    I haven't been able to watch this movie except in bits and pieces, though. I moved it to the top of my Amazon wish list, though, for the proverbial schiessen-und-gigglun.

    1. I think the novel IS unfocused, but in a very focused way. That's a ridiculous sentence, but hopefully it makes sense.

      What I mean is this: It's unfocused in the sense that the novel loses touch of its two main characters for a lengthy stretch of time, during which it becomes a sort of anthology about other goings-on in the town. However, it is focused in the sense that I get the feeling King structured things that on purpose, so as to create tension.

      Either way, I think it mostly works.

    2. "I think the novel IS unfocused, but in a very focused way. That's a ridiculous sentence, but hopefully it makes sense."

      ha! I'd love to see that on the back cover of either the DVD or the book.

      I see what you mean, though.

      Also, that screen-grab of Traci Lords proves the truth of that old saying: "Traci Lords sure looks great in a Post Office uniform."

    3. Here is where I demonstrate considerable mettle in terms of the comments about Traci Lords I choose NOT to make. Well done, me!

  6. Invest a week or two and read King's novel instead. Much, much more terrifying and emotional.

    1. For sure. One of King's most underrated novels, in my opinion.