A jack of all trades is a master of none - that saying applies to the latest Stephen King adaptation which despite its lavish look and solid cast, never truly gels as its not entirely sure what it wants to be and tries to distract with all too many nifty ideas in place of a solid story.
In the hands of an amateur this could easily have fallen into a complete mess, thankfully Larry Kasdan at least knows how to handle the material and manages to, for the most part, keep things clear. Yet even at over two hours, there's all too much going on here with lots of elements feeling rushed or in desperate need of a further explanation which never comes. Combine "Stand By Me", "The Sixth Sense", "Independence Day", a gory "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", "Outbreak", "Alien", "The Edge" and even a dash of "Porkys" and you'll get a sense of the mish mash going on here.
The book admittedly was far from one of King's best efforts and in many ways the film has just carried over many of the same problems of the novel but is further hampered by the lack of time for character work (such as Underhill's all too rushed loyalty change) that you have in a movie - this explains why the author's books have made better mini-series than films because even despite the lesser production values, there was time to truly explore these varied characters.
The film further removes 90% of the very 'up to the minute' pop culture style satire which helped hide the somewhat tired old elements of the story including the ubiquitous "when we were childhood friends" scenes. Everything is played seriously here with the exception of the 'explosive farts' sequences early on, and this hampers the rather ridiculous elements of the story - especially as it progresses and the plot holes get bigger and bigger (the 'I am telepathic' excuse is used more than a dozen times or so to cover leaps of logic) before coming too a ridiculously over blown ending.
The actors try to stick to character work - each of the four main male leads seem suicidal though none convincingly pull it off and the child flashback exposition sequences seem forced at best. Morgan Freeman doesn't seem to be relishing the fun of the redneck general role and doesn't appear until nearly an hour into the proceedings, but he's better than Sizemore who has pretty much nothing to do as cohort Underhill. Of the four mains its Damian Lewis who comes off best and goes into 'Gollum' talking to himself style mode using his native British and an American accent. Lee, Olyphant & Jane deliver serviceable but forgettable work, and Donnie Wahlberg is practically unrecognisable as the older Duddits.
What does work is the look - the backdrop of the snow covered forest setting, the viral containment military camps, and even a 'warehouse mind interior set' all have a distinctive visual appeal. The Ripley is never clearly spelled out and the alien elements feel underwhelming, yet the shit weasels are useful for some cool action FX scenes and one heavily CG 'modown/exploding UFO' scene feels like an entirely different movie to the otherwise contained and piece-by-piece unwinding story.
There's highlights for sure and some scenes from the 'bathroom attack' to the various sequences within the 'warehouse of the mind' are memorable but like some other King adaptations there's just too much crammed into too little. High production values can't hide the fact this is very much B-movie sci-fi schlock, but if that's the case - where's the fun?.