The promise of Andy Muschietti’s much-anticipated sequel “It Chapter Two” is in its tagline: “Witness the End of It.” It’s both the end of “It,” the eponymous alien being that took on the visage of a horrifying clown to terrorize the children in the fictitious town of Derry; and of “It,” a sprawling Stephen King-crafted nightmare that follows the plucky kids who organize to bring him down.
Despite some massive updates from the first film, including the addition of an entirely new cast of much-less-plucky adults and a vibe so dark it borders on the grotesque, this “It” is not so different than its predecessor. It’s not quite the end of it, it’s more a continuation of it, and one plagued by old problems that should have been solved long before it even attempted to conclude itself. Still, much of the promise is held: It is the end of something, and a haltingly satisfying one at that.
Like the first film, Gary Dauberman’s script is mostly faithful to the heart of King’s story, though he and Muschietti have jettisoned some key sequences (goodbye, insane sewer orgy) and characters that enriched the book while sticking to a few that had little merit in the source material and even less now (hello, adult Henry Bowers). Anyone hoping to get a deeper exploration of the romantic relationships that Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), and even Eddie (James Ransone) find themselves in as adults will be disappointed, a cruel cut that removes some of the book’s most heartbreaking revelations about their grown-up lives. (One too-quick wink that most audiences will completely miss: the casting of Chastain’s own real-life best friend Jess Weixler as Bill’s Beverly-lookalike wife.)
Picking up 27 years after the events of the first film, “It Chapter Two” quickly sets about reuniting its core crew once Pennywise AKA It AKA Terrifying Space Alien Thing returns to wreak havoc in Derry. One problem: they don’t quite remember Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), or how they defeated him, or their childhood pledge to return to battle him, or even each other or Derry itself. Pennywise’s powers might be so wide-ranging as to be nearly impossible to understand, but Muschietti and Dauberman nail one of his strangest: the further you get from him and from Derry, the less you remember about it all.
Thankfully, there is one person who remembers: Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who has taken over as the group’s historian and stayed in Derry all these years, both to hold fast to what happened to the so-called Losers’ Club as kids and to discover a way to finally kill off the entity that is It. After a wrenching (and faithful to the book) opening sequence that sees (of all people!) filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan dispatched by a hungry Pennywise, Mike calls in reinforcements.
“It” has always been about generational trauma, agony passed down from year to year, inherited horror that can never be forgotten. And while the Losers don’t instantly remember what it was that they lived through as kids, they remember the pain, and it’s what pulls them back to Derry and away from adult lives that seem, even in the short scenes Muschietti devotes to them, wholly informed by the terrors of their childhood. In Derry it all comes rushing back, with Muschietti quickly putting the Losers back together, now adults and just as perfectly cast as they were in the first film, to face their fears as a group.
As dark as “It” can get — the “R” rating for “disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout” only hints at the raw violence within — the joy of putting all the Losers in one room provides levity and light. Suddenly reunited at a lacquered (and liquored) Chinese restaurant, the group falls into familiar patterns, old laughs, and key memories. Kudos to casting director Rich Delia; this ensemble is the real star of the film.
But no sooner than we have old gang back, they’re fractured once more. Choosing to pull the characters apart is an instant misfire, both weighing down the snappy flow and keeping this wonderful ensemble from playing off each other. Tasked with finding various “artifacts” from their youth to weaponize against Pennywise — a clunky way to revisit old material in a movie that just loves old material — the Losers set off on their own trips through Derry (and through their memories). This contributes to the film’s off-kilter pacing, stretching out its three-hour running time with repetition and rehash.
“It Chapter Two” is generous elsewhere: As Bill, the group’s leader, McAvoy ably takes over the part from young Jaden Martell. He makes off with some of the film’s most well-earned emotional beats, including a pair of horrific set pieces that blend pain and terror.
Hader’s spin on Richie, a performance all but preordained by Finn Wolfhard (who notoriously fan-casted the Emmy nominee as his older self) is the film’s standout. Few actors are so skilled at melding a comedian’s pain with their bluster, but Hader makes it look easy. An expanded subplot about Richie’s secrets and desires adds resonance to both the role and the film as a whole, and Hader shines brightest in an ensemble without a weak link.
But about those subplots. Muschietti’s reticence to let go of his talented kid cast for an all-adult sequel is understandable, but involving younger versions of each character wasn’t the solution. “It Chapter Two” weaves in sequences from the first film — like the oddly obvious, including a reminder of the pledge that binds the Losers together — and new scenes meant to beef up childhood subplots.
Smartly deployed de-aging technology allows the cast to look age-appropriate for their old roles — two years is a long stretch in teen time — though it can prove to be distracting when all the Losers are thrust together. But, just like their adult counterparts, they’re never together as long as fans might like. Instead, we get more individual journeys thanks to a litany of retconned storytelling.
Some new additions are welcome, like the emotional exploration of Richie’s youth and how it informs his adult existence, and a gruesome expansion of Eddie’s many neuroses. Others are strangely unnecessary, including reminders of Bill and Beverly’s early affection for each other (did you know they liked each other? did you?) and a sequence that suddenly sticks Ben in summer school (when the hell did that happen?).
Those scenes also work to expand Pennywise’s powers, imagining him as not just a beast who feeds off fear, but who can sniff out the very things that make people afraid (and set up a bunch more jump scares). While some of the film’s bloodiest setpieces amp up the chills from the first film — from a funhouse-set freakout to a shocking sequence that sees Chastain doused in more blood than even “The Shining” could dream of — many of them are eerily familiar and queasily repetitive.
By the time “It Chapter Two” lurches toward the Losers’ ultimate battle with Pennywise, the film has been permeated by a sense of deja vu; it’s a whole lot less scary or fun the second time around. When the group must infiltrate another level to It’s underground lair, one of the Losers asks an obvious question: what’s waiting for them below? They don’t know, but their bond and their bravery pushes them on. As for that second level, it looks just like the first one. Just a bit older, a bit bigger, and filled with all the fears they’ve had to face before.
Warner Bros. will release “It: Chapter Two” in theaters nationwide on Friday, September 6.