JACOB’S LADDER (2019)
Directed by David M. Rosenthal
Written by Jeff Buhler, Sarah Thorpe, Jake Wade Wall, based on the story by Bruce Joel Rubin
Starring Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nicole Beharie, Joseph Sikora, Karla Souza, Guy Burnet, Ninja N. Devoe
If you’re going to remake a movie, there ought to be a good reason for doing it. David Cronenberg updated THE FLY to make a comment on A.I.D.S. and cancer. John Carpenter remade THE THING to showcase some amazing effects and tell a story of heightened paranoia. These are just two examples of how new themes can be used successfully in a remake. These remakes brought something new, smart, and fresh to the material. Simply recasting the characters with a different race and making it modern isn’t going to hack it. This is why JACOB’S LADDER ’19 unfortunately falls into the unnecessary remake category, especially when compared to the original material.
Is it fair to compare JACOB’S LADDER 2019 with JACOB’S LADDER 1990?
I think so.
The film is banking on viewers recognizing it by using the name and lifting some key scenes from the original. JL’19 reuses many of the names of characters from JL’90, it follows the same plot points and conspiracy theories, and most of the horror comes from the main players seeing demons on the street, on the train, and in the periphery. They also ping pong back and forth between the past and present, playing with the expectations of the viewer, and mindfucking them with a few twists along the way. If you’ve seen the original, you’ll come to expect a little reality altering. If you’re the type of person who can’t stand “old” movies and prefer to watch squeaky clean and tidy cinema, then JL’19 is for you.
BUT the problem is that everything that makes JL’90 a classic is either watered down or changed for no reason here. First and foremost, JL’90 was a filthy little movie. Adrian Lyne does a fantastic job of giving every frame of JL’90 a grimy, lived in, sleazy, and gritty feel. Through heavy saturated lighting, extreme closeups, and sporadic edits, we see the world shatter around Jacob as he deals with trying to piece his life together after Viet Nam. From frame one, we are right there experiencing hell with Jacob’s complicated life, the monotony of his common job as a mailman, and the grief of losing his child Gabe. In JL’19, Jacob (Michael Ealy) is an accomplished doctor in a spotless mansion with a beautiful wife and newborn child. His problems lay in the fact that he lost his brother Isaac (Jesse Williams) on an operating table in Afghanistan. Director David M. Rosenthal lights JL’19 as brightly as he can, making everything look crisp and clean, and staging everything as exciting as a soap opera shoot. Now I know many folks of color might feel as if the remake is more relatable when seeing people with their own skin tone on the screen, but if that story is less engaging, less soulful, less compelling in pretty much every way—it doesn’t matter the race of the players, it’s just not going to stack up.
In JL’90, Jacob flips between one reality in Viet Nam, one just after Viet Nam when his son and marriage was alive, and one after that marriage has fallen apart and his son has died. In JL’19, Jacob is confronted with the reality that his brother Isaac is actually alive and soon finds his life changing dramatically around him. Both films flirt with the idea that the fractured psyches of the protagonist is either an actual descent into hell or the result of drug experimentation used on the soldiers during the war. While JL’90 walks that line until the very end, leaving a very ambiguous and yet, final ending, JL’19 decides to be much more literal and give a definite answer, leaving all questions addressed by the credits. Both films, to an extent, are about a man named Jacob who struggles with coming to terms with his true reality. But aside from some of the same names being used, the films are completely different in tone, story, and execution.
JL’90 is a waking nightmare. It’s not without its own flaws, but compared to this remake, it’s a masterpiece. JL’19 is not a completely terrible movie, it just doesn’t excel in every way when compared to JL’90. Ealy and Williams are fine actors and do what they can with what they are given. But when JL’19 tries to be like the original, it just doesn’t work as the scares are bland, the story is meandering, and the style is somewhat nonexistent. Compare that to the nightmarish effects, the cohesive, yet complex plot, and undeniable gorgeousness of the way the original was shot. No comparison. What JL’19 tries to add to the story just isn’t interesting enough. Instead of a literal descent into the dankest regions of hell, the remake decides to take a more dramatic and psychological route, failing to deliver the scares and chills that accompany the mere mention of the original.
I did what I do every time I hear about a remake when I heard that JACOB’S LADDER was being remade. First I let out an exasperated sigh, but then I reminded myself that there have been many worthwhile remakes through the years. Unfortunately, JACOB’S LADDER 2019 isn’t one of them. Rewatch the original. I did immediately after finishing the remake and it cleansed my palate rather nicely.
Note: After re-rereading my review of JACOB’S LADDER 2019, I realized that I talked more about the original than the remake. But I didn’t change it. This should be a clear indication that this film fails in every way to live up to the high quality of the original.