College professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) has a fondness for vintage technology and picks up an old VCR while he’s out one day. Working on it to repair it at home, Gabriel is surprised to discover there is an old VHS tape inside with a label reading “Watch Me”. Gabriel watches the video, which consists of a series of disturbing and strange images. When it’s finished, Gabriel receives a phone call from a mysterious person saying only, “Seven days.” His life then becomes consumed by research on the infamous cursed video and Samara, the demonic entity who kills anyone who sees the tape.
Holt (Alex Roe) departs for college, where he is enrolled in Gabriel’s class. After he goes an extended period of time without contacting his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz), Julia drives to the school herself and learns Holt has become involved in experiments on the tape conducted by Gabriel. After seeing what the video does to people, Holt and Julia must find a way to stop the curse so nobody is harmed by Samara ever again.
Rings is the third installment of the horror franchise based on the Japanese film Ring, coming 12 years after 2005’s The Ring Two. The film conducted principal photography back in 2015 and went through multiple delays as Paramount kept pushing the release date back. Now that it’s finally in theaters, the hope is that it can essentially act as a soft reboot, bringing The Ring property back to the limelight by giving viewers a creepy experience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are not completely successful in their goals. Rings is a mediocre horror sequel handicapped by poor writing that will only appeal to die hard fans of the genre and source material.
The film is directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez, whose approach here is a mixed bag. There are some sequences that are well-crafted and suitably creepy (mainly, any involving Samara), but moments like these are few and far between. Even though Rings is under two hours, Gutiérrez struggles with the pacing, and the movie crawls along and feels boring instead of scary. Part of the blame in that regard falls to writers David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman, as their screenplay is exposition-heavy and crafts a mystery around Samara that never truly engages the audience. None of the characters are all that interesting as well, which hurts the film’s ability to connect.
There’s also a giant wasted opportunity with Rings in that it settles to rehash earlier entries than bring anything new to the table. The setup for the main story is clunky, and some viewers will find it more silly than anything. Even though the film is set in the present day, any attempts to update the premise for modern times are half-hearted, and the writing team never takes full advantage of technological wonders like the Cloud and YouTube. It is possible to look past this and just go for the ride, but people looking for somewhat grounded and realistic thrills will probably be disappointed. The first act is severely shortchanged to get to the meat of the story, and while brevity is typically appreciated, in this instance, the creative team could have beefed it up more to better explain certain elements.
In regards to the performances, the one clear standout is Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Burke, a town’s former priest. Unsurprisingly, he lends a fair amount of gravitas to the role and is responsible for some of its better moments. Rings really picks up when his character becomes involved, although some of his actions have been better executed in other horror titles. Still, D’Onofrio elevates what’s on the page and is arguably the most memorable character. There admittedly isn’t much to the role, but the actor leaves his mark in a part that is more than meets the eye. Galecki is also solid as the philosophizing Gabriel. The professor’s shortcomings are mainly script-based, and the Big Bang Theory star does all he can with the supporting role. Like Burke, Gabriel is thinly written, but Galecki gets the job done.
Lutz and Roe are OK as the leads; both have spurts where they convincingly convey the terror Julia and Holt are feeling, but they are largely blank slates that exist mainly to propel the plot forward. Rings‘ emotional core is centered around their romantic relationship, however, the actors’ chemistry with one another is passable at best and never really sells their connection. They make for decent conduits for audience members curious to see where the journey goes, but they do not raise the bar in terms of horror movie protagonists, simply going through the motions and hitting the expected beats. Again, this is mainly the fault of the screenplay, which is (somewhat understandably) focused more on Samara than anyone else.
In the end, Rings exists solely for the longtime fans eager to see more from the long-running horror series. This film isn’t going to win over any converts, mainly due to the weak script and familiar narrative that doesn’t take the franchise in any new directions. Those looking for a creepy time at the movies would be better served seeing Split and waiting for home media to catch up with Samara. Rings is not going to win any new converts, so unless one has been with the franchise from the beginning and is curious to see more, there isn’t much to gain here.