King's longer novels -- Dreamcatcher runs more than 900 pages in paperback -- often pack in more essential plot material than can be accommodated in a movie of commercially viable length. Condensing, paring and abbreviating the story elements can be daunting. Kasdan and Goldman are masters at wrangling unwieldy source material into shape, but Dreamcatcher suffers from awkwardness and confusion.
The opening minutes deftly let us in on some of the setup as we're introduced to four longtime buddies. Henry (Thomas Jane) is a suicidal psychiatrist, Jonesy (Damian Lewis) a teacher, Beaver (Jason Lee) a carpenter, and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) a car salesman. Each is seemingly telepathic. Pete has a psychic knack for finding things, Beaver might be precognitive, and Jonesy has an amazing memory.
Kasdan and Goldman have presumably spent so much time with King's novel that they don't realize how unclearly their screenplay delineates the four friends' powers. Are all four telepathic in general, or are they in contact merely with each other? If they're all mind readers, why do they seemingly fail to perceive outsiders' thoughts at crucial moments? Unfortunately, the suspense is constructed on these facts, and the foundation is a bit muddy.
The four convene for their annual retreat into the woods at a remote cabin near where they grew up in Derry, Maine. They make initially vague references to a fifth, very special friend, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), who, flashbacks explain, is at the center of their bond and powers.
This would be enough mystery for most writers, but not for King. Soon, the cabin and most of the countryside are overrun by squiggly, wormlike alien larvae that can develop into huge phallic-vaginal combo-platter creatures. The beings are independent organisms some of the time, body-inhabiting mental entities other times, apparent shape shifters yet other times -- depending on what the plot and the shock effects call for at the moment.
That's still not enough plot for King, who brings in the military to juice things up further. Colonel Abe Curtis (Morgan Freeman) is the top dog in a secret task force that has been battling these alien invaders for decades. He's about to turn the reins over to his protégé, Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore), but the methods of cleaning up the Maine infestation may drive them apart.
The film's point of view leaps from character to character, though Jonesy gets the most screen time. His character has the most visually interesting quirk: His memories are stored in a warehouse in his brain, an area the camera actually visits and which is occupied by an internal Jonesy avatar. (The design of this set is the film's most memorable element.)
Despite all these expositional problems, Kasdan manages to make the film fly by pretty quickly. The movie's shifting point of view is partly the product of cutting among different action threads, a shopworn technique for generating suspense. With all the technical advances at a modern filmmaker's disposal, it's still as reliable a strategy as anything that's been developed since.
Speaking of technical advances, Dreamcatcher is accompanied in theaters by "The Final Flight of the Osiris," one of the Animatrix shorts conceived and written by Andy and Larry Wachowski to supplement their Matrix world. Directed by Andy Jones (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), this animated work fills in a crucial part of the story between The Matrix and its upcoming sequel, The Matrix Reloaded.
"The Final Flight of the Osiris" is a swift, exciting eleven minutes that demonstrate just how close computer animation is getting to generating completely believable virtual actors. The technique is sometimes so good that you're almost sure they've snuck in live-action footage. The rest of the time, the characters look too smooth, as though they frequent Michael Jackson's plastic surgeons -- though they still look more real than Jacko.