IT: Chapter Two features a phenomenal cast undercut by a poorly told story that retroactively cheapens IT, a movie I didn’t really care for anyway but now feel kind of sorry for. For catch-up’s sake: In the first film, a group of seven preteens in nondescript Derry, Maine circa 1989 becomes the target of a supernatural entity known only as IT, a psychic vampire that lives beneath Derry and feeds on its children every few decades. IT tenderizes its meals by taking the form of what they fear most to frighten them. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is ITs most common form — frankly, too frequently in both films. The “Losers,” as they call themselves, manage to defeat but not destroy IT in 1989, and in Chapter Two they’re called back to Derry to finish what they started. The problem, of course, is that the magic that bound them together has faded, their traumas have been repressed, and as adults, their ability to interact with IT is deeply hampered. Chapter Two has a lot of interesting potential but squanders it on a two-and-a-half-hour haunted house ride that becomes extraordinarily repetitive, regardless of how beautifully it’s shot and conveyed.
The two IT films are theoretically a dream come true for fans of Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel. IT is his magnum opus, the novel that contains everything makes his writing special. Vivid characters, a true sense of place, graphic violence, bizarre sexual hangups and the keenest understanding of the human spirit of any American popular novelist. He captures people and all their potential for good and evil. In particular, King also understands children. IT, as a novel novel, tells the story of the Losers as children and adults simultaneously. It’s enormous, complex and rewarding.
Director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman weren’t afforded the luxury of “enormous” and “complex.” How could they be? Getting the studio greenlight on a movie about kids facing off against a memorable supernatural entity in small-town 1980s America was probably relatively easy. Asking for simultaneous storytelling about those adults returning to face down against the same creature? Probably not. Splitting them in two makes sense and creates a viable retelling of the entire novel. Which is why Chapter Two, as a movie, is so frustrating. It never feels remotely necessary as a follow-up to the original film.
Take, for instance, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Martell as a young man, James McAvoy now). He’s the “leader” of the Losers, a little boy with a stutter who loses his younger brother Georgie to Pennywise in the story’s most iconic scene: George chases a sailboat into a sewer grate where Pennywise murders him. “You’ll float, too,” etc. etc. In the first film, Bill has to come to terms with his brother’s death and defeat Pennywise. In Chapter Two, Bill has to … come to terms with his brother’s death and defeat Pennywise. Beverly (Sophia Lillis as a young woman, Jessica Chastain now) grew up with an abusive father, and in Chapter Two it’s revealed she’s become married to an abusive husband. With regard to Beverly’s story, the cycles of trauma and abuse weigh heavily. In the book, they actually go somewhere. Here they’re largely used as cheap horror or even cheaper catharsis, too lightly sketched across multiple sequences of tension-free CGI action to feel properly examined.
Really, that’s the major problem with Chapter Two. Readers of the novel understand that each of the Losers is granted a rabbits-foot adulthood to keep them away from Derry forever because IT fears them. Bill becomes a successful novelist with a troubled marriage and difficulty with emotional investment. Beverly becomes a successful fashion architect who can’t escape her father. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor as a young man, Jay Ryan now) has lost his childhood weight to become a psychically chiseled famous architect who is nonetheless all alone. This is both a plot contrivance to keep them away from Derry and also King’s commentary on adulthood and what the loss of innocence means. None of this is conveyed effectively in Chapter Two, which is more concerned with being light on its feet and “spooky” rather than thoughtful and sincere.
The most grating example is the character of Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff as a young man, Andy Bean now). Stanley is the only loser who chooses not to return to Derry. His death is iconic, too; he commits suicide with a razor in the bathtub, writing “IT” on the wall above him in his own blood. In the book, Stan kills himself because he can’t face their mutual past. It’s a tragedy. In Chapter Two, his death is retconned via letter into a heroic gesture. It’s a strange and saccharine addition that lightens the tone of the entire story.
The cuts and alterations are even more frustrating given that the film is already a bloated 160 minutes long. At nearly three hours, there’s no shortage of screen time that could be devoted to character work and introspection, but once again Muschietti mostly spends the minutes with boring scares and goofy CGI. Each Loser gets their own overlong Adult Scare with an accompanying Childhood Scare. Few of these land. The climactic battle against Pennywise is equally overlong, just like the ending of the first film. The novel is great because King understood where the focus of his story was. Chapter Two fails because it lacks any focus at all.
It’s entirely possible that Muschietti is planning a cut that combines both works into a single four-hour film or miniseries (I could see it landing on HBOMax, maybe as a miniseries). The casting is so spot-on in these movies that I hope intercutting the two would allow the themes to feel a little more coherent across the overall story. But if it ends up maintaining every scare, it sounds like a dire proposition indeed. As a longtime fan of the novel, this feels like a “beggars can’t be choosers” situation, but I argue there’s no real need for an IT movie anyway, particularly one that only scratches the surface of such a seminal work of American fiction.