Four childhood buddies sharing a mysterious telepathic bond find their annual hunting trip is about to go horribly wrong. Engulfed by unseasonable blizzards, they realise that a deadly alien is in the woods with them, taking a keen interest in their powers. Meanwhile, a special army unit is intent on eradicating all evidence of alien activity.
Alien vegetables with sentient powers? Insane military commanders with hair-triggers and crypto-fascist pronouncements? Four life-long buddies with fraying lives and telekinetic foreheads? Snow, trees and flashbacks to a golden past of forgotten promise? We can only be tromping around in the genre-bending brain of Stephen King, whose mammoth novel Lawrence Kasdan has bravely elected to fillet down to a manageable movie, for a directorial U-turn away from sturdy ensemble dramedies.
As is too often the case, King proves no easy beast to wrestle. This sprawling, frequently unfathomable monster movie may kick off with some serious shock value, but it soon putters out into a scattershot of interesting ideas hastily smothered by a giant slab of soul-draining CGI.
Let's start with the good stuff. The setting is perfect. Shot in the dense, snowy forests of British Columbia, the cabin in the woods cliché is presented in an otherworldly white-out, muffling sound and disorientating vision.
Two of our heroes - Lewis and Lee - rescue a delusional stranger wandering lost among the trees. That he has a distended stomach and is emitting acrid, sonorous farts should be cause for concern, as should the itchy patch of red mould on his cheek. Cue a razor-teethed riff on Alien. Fair play to Kasdan: he holds the scene in check as it treads a tightrope between the schoolboy gross-out and something terrifyingly primal. The tension genuinely starts to claw at your brain cells, and it's not long before some of the name-cast are reduced to a pulpy mess.
The actors' performances are crisp and inviting. Kasdan is a dab-hand at the rhythms and rituals of friendship, and we get an immediate sense of the tests the years have placed on the guys' bond. Lee and Timothy Olyphant have smaller but distinctive roles, leaving it to Jane and Band Of Brothers star Lewis (a Brit, no less) to bear the brunt of the movie. Lewis, especially, rises to the challenge of not only pulling off a pitch-perfect American accent, but also being possessed by an alien and doing a fidgety rendition of Gollum-esque double talk. Kasdan, in a daring but only semi-successful move, also depicts the real Jonesy trapped within his own head in a vast memory depository.
Then the army turns up and the plot descends into anarchy. Without the room, or indeed skill, to contain all of King's disparate elements - alarmist conspiracy theories, postmodern giggles (the mould is dubbed "Ripley"), psychic powers - the film resorts to lumbering action scenes and a baffling surge of story points shuffled into the ending. Finally we have to endure a pathetic rush-job of totally unexplained, rubbery-looking CGI monstrosities roaring at each other like something from those barking mad Toho creature features.
Given that this is the sum-total of the hot scriptwriting combo of William Goldman and Lawrence Kasdan, 'could do better' doesn't get halfway there. Make 'em watch Children Of The Corn on loop until they've learned their lesson.
In the King pantheon, it's just middle order. Kasdan is in his element with the 'tight-knit friends facing off unknown alien terror', Signs-style section of the tale. When it all turns Independence Day meets Carrie, told with the firm grasp of Bambi on ic