It takes seven days for the videotape in the “Ring” horror franchise to kill its victims, but only 102 minutes for “Rings” to bleed the premise dry. Twelve years after the last underwhelming entry in the series, “The Ring Two,” this half-hearted attempt to resurrect the J-horror import for another era instead proves its irrelevance.
The original movies generated an eerie suspense around grainy VHS footage and the horrors that lurk within its confines coming to life. This latest entry, featuring all new characters, finds the ghostly Samara working her way into the digital realm, hacking her way through MP4 files to assail a whole new generation of viewers — not only the characters, but younger audiences who may have no other reference point for this franchise outside of this dull retreat.
They would be better off watching “It Follows” instead — or, for that matter, the recently released J-horror crossover “The Ring vs. The Grudge,” which at least doesn’t make the mistake of “Rings” in taking this overcooked concept seriously after so many years. The first time somebody in “Rings” mutters, “I need to show you something,” it’s like listening to an awful pop music cover of a classic rock melody. The notes just don’t stick like they used to.
While neither the original 1998 “Ring” nor Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake were masterpieces, at least they built some genuine suspense out of the premise: Watching the video is a creepy experience on its own right, but it also starts the clock. Pass the video on to somebody else and you’re in the clear. If you don’t, Samara emerges from your television and drains your life force. By “The Ring Two,” that challenge has birthed an entire subculture of teens sharing the video with each other like a kind of deathly spin-the-bottle; with “Rings,” the threat’s been around long enough to birth a research facility.
That’s where a sleepy-eyed university professor (Johnny Galecki) ropes in his students with the promise of discovering the afterlife, instead drawing them into a never-ending cycle of dodging imminent death by passing it on. One of the teacher’s recent students is Holt (Alex Roe), who just started college while maintaining a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz). After a few weeks of video chats, she can’t reach him by text, and an ominous woman appears in his dorm room when she calls him up. So she speeds out to his campus, discovers he’s been protecting her from knowledge of his Samara problem, and gets deeply entrenched in figuring it out.
“Rings” never solidifies into one of kind movie, cramming a handful of possibilities into its bloated running time. Viewing the early scenes on their own — and disconnecting them from a campy opening bit on a plane that establishes the supernatural threat — would make “Rings” into a perfectly forgettable teen relationship drama. Instead, it becomes a perfectly forgettable horror sequel that just so happens to have the rights to the “Ring” franchise. Then it’s a perfectly forgettable detective story, with Julia and Holt venturing to the countryside, where they uncover a bunch of background information surrounding Samara’s death.
They don’t find anything particularly revelatory there, aside from a few more details surrounding Samara’s death at the bottom of a well, but it’s not exactly the kind of world-building that shifts the franchise in some bold new direction. The addition of a demented blind priest played by Vincent D’Onofrio holds some potential for the way his abrupt arrival feels laughably absurd and menacing at the same time. A few snazzy shots and well-timed jump scares prove that director F. Javier Gutierrez put some thought into various ways of jolting his audience. Meanwhile, Samara remains the movie’s most predictable threat: a pale-skinned ghoul who doesn’t do much beyond lurch out of the television, her eyes obscured beneath a wet mop of hair, as she reaches toward her horrified victims. Even the digital age hasn’t taught this dead dog many new tricks.
Well, except one: As the title suggests, our unstoppable phantom menace has mastered the art of editing, expanding on the video in ways that allow for multiple versions and new permutations of her threat. A frantic moment at the very end suggests she’s something of a hacker as well. (What’s next? “Rings VR”? Don’t answer that.)
But before you elevate “Rings” on the basis of a potential metaphor for the real-world hacking scandals plaguing modern times, realize that simply acknowledging contemporary circumstances isn’t the same thing as doing something innovative with them. Compare this sequel to “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s upcoming B-movie about rich white people brainwashing black servants, or “The Purge: Election Year,” which is basically an embellished riff on the election of Donald Trump, and “Rings” looks awfully vapid — it doesn’t innovate with its reference points so much as it lazily shoehorns them in. There’s no functional purpose driving the fear. “I watched the tape, but it can’t be for nothing!” gasps one character, essentially sealing his fate, and dragging the movie down with him. Above all else, “Rings” proves a relevant idea isn’t necessarily an inspired one.
“Rings” is now playing in theaters nationwide.