Watching Adrian Lyne’s classic “Jacob’s Ladder” raises a lot of complex psychological and spiritual questions. The film stars Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran who suffers from horrifying visions and persecution nightmares, but Lyne’s film dares to ask if nightmares are, perhaps, beautiful experiences viewed from the wrong angle. What is existential truth? What is sanity? What is the difference, if any, between heaven and hell?
David M. Rosenthal’s remake of “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t have the same ambition as Lyne’s 1990 film, but it does re-use much of the same imagery to tell a vaguely similar story. Michael Ealy stars as Jacob Singer, a veteran who lost his brother in Afghanistan, and now works at a V.A. hospital in Atlanta. When he’s not helping other traumatized veterans get pharmaceutical help for their conditions, he’s having flashbacks of his own.
The plot kicks in when Jacob learns from a mysterious vagrant that his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams) is alive and living in the sewers, and taking an experimental drug. Jacob and Isaac begin to confront their horrifying experiences, but as Isaac begins to reclaim his sanity, Jacob starts losing hold of his own. And stuck in the middle, unsure of who to trust, is Jacob’s wife Samantha (Nicole Beharie, “Sleepy Hollow”), who was romantically involved with Isaac before the war.
The addition of a brother makes the new “Jacob’s Ladder” more external than the original, giving the plot more focus and the characters more reasons to run from place to place, investigating the mysterious narcotics and supernatural boogeyman who plague their lives. But the decision to focus the narrative on a singular path, rather than capture the dreamlike daily life of one protagonist, doesn’t make “Jacob’s Ladder” feel more like a thriller. It makes it seem confused.
The new script by Jeff Buhler (2019’s “Pet Sematary”) and Sarah Thorpe leaves in all the trippy hallucinations, but now they get in the way of the mystery instead of forming its foundation. And the mystery itself seems only half-developed because we can’t trust what we’re learning about it. When we do discover the truth behind this new “Jacob’s Ladder,” anyone in the audience — regardless of their familiarity to Lyne’s version — is bound to be disappointed by how simplistic it is. (Fans of the original will, at least, encounter a few surprises.)
That’s no fault of the film’s cast. Ealy carries the film capably, at home with both his family and his demons, and as the story progresses and he loses his mind, he nimbly makes one giant cognitive leap after another. He’s perfectly natural in an unnatural narrative. Williams and Beharie are given less to work with, since Jacob doesn’t always know what to think or feel about them, but once the film is over and you look back over their creative choices, you’ll see that they always played fair with the narrative, and that their true natures were never hidden, only ignored.
Would that the rest of the film had been so capably put together. The new “Jacob’s Ladder” is frustratingly filmed, edited and scored. Even one of those critiques can torpedo an otherwise excellent production, but put them together and the effect is numbing. Atli Orvarsson (“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”) offers up a score that’s atonal and tedious. Richard Mettler (“Anthropoid”) edits the film without tangible momentum, struggling to goose up even the limpest scares. The cinematography by Pedro Luque (“Swamp Thing”) is sickly green and, for the most part, unremarkably composed.
The few shots that do make an impact are lifted wholesale from oddly disparate sources, including “Gladiator” and “The Exorcist III.” There’s no getting around it: “Jacob’s Ladder” simply looks and feels like a cheap, knockoff production despite the A-list source material and an excellent cast.
Perhaps the most important litmus test for any movie remake is this: if you’d never seen the original, would you understand why it was worth remaking in the first place? So forget everything you know about the original “Jacob’s Ladder,” if you’ve already seen it. Watch the remake for what it is, all by its lonesome, and you’ll find a shabby low-rent thriller with a few vaguely interesting ideas and an ensemble that deserves better material.
Whatever big questions the new film asks about PTSD and the fragility of human sanity are ultimately brushed aside to make way for pulpy, unconvincing answers. Only the biggest question of all — “Why did this get made, again?” — remains elusive.