Things tend to happen in a domino-like effect. For example, when I replaced my audio receiver, I ended up keen to purchase new discs to exercise the audio capabilities it offers. As I type this
essay pile of shit, I am indeed viewing The Muppets. Like a certain other film that capitalises on a relic of my childhood, instead of trying to pretend like nothing has changed in the numerous years since the cast was really heard from last, it acknowledges those years. Unfortunately, this alone does not guarantee quality.
But I am not here to talk about The Muppets, at least not this time. Partly because it just is not my thing (I rented the film, but I am glad I did not pay money for it (it sucks)). Rather, I would like to talk about one of the films I purchased on Blu-ray Disc a few days and the series that it is a part of. Saw: The Final Chapter has so far kept the implicit promise in its cover title, in that no additional Saw films have been put into production. Thankfully, the promise implied in the title in the credits, Saw 3D, was not fulfilled. It does, however, demonstrate through a lot of different shots what a load of bollocks the latest attempt to revive 3D really is. Just like in the trailers I have seen for other films presented in what they call 3D, the shots in which things are thrown at the screen demonstrate the true practical limits of 3D as a gimmick. How many more shots of people throwing things at the screen do we need before the industry realises that they need to find a better means to bring people back into theatres?
The Saw series was originally an interesting twist upon the slasher genre that was once the staple of independent cinema. Rather than pick a singular trademark weapon and attempt to invent increasingly stupid ways in which to kill people with it, its central villain chooses a variety of Rube Goldberg devices that basically torture his victims to death. His choice of victim basically follows one rule, in that he selects people he feels do not sufficiently appreciate their lives.
Of course, this introduces a serious difficulty in terms of the balance between making the antagonist credibly evil without turning the audience against him. So a lot of care is taken in the films to portray the victims as having done some form of wrong. The example that opens Saw 3D is an example where this fails. Describing exactly why it fails is not easy, however, because although the described behaviour of one participant is a bit on the nose, the sequence is also a classic example of too much tell and not enough show.
The “game” begins with two men waking up on opposite ends of the Rube Goldberg device, chained to it. At each end of said Rube Goldberg device is a circular saw. The device will, when pushed far enough in either direction, chop up the person at that end. But there is a third saw in the middle of the device, pointed upward. And above said saw, we find a woman suspended from the ceiling. As the recorded voice assures us, the woman suspended from the ceiling has been “playing” the men at either side of the device for her own selfish desires. Come on, writers. You can come up with a better excuse for two men who are courting the same woman to kill her. Or at least make the excuse a bit more tangible to the audience, as opposed to just expecting us to take “Jigsaw”‘s word for it.
As a point of comparison, when Donnie Wahlberg‘s character in Saw II is… shall we say, disposed of, it feels cathartic. Largely because the film gives enough background for the character for the revelations concerning his ignobility at the end to matter to the audience. Another good point of comparison is at the end of the original Saw, when Jigsaw reveals to the loser of the “game” that the key to the chain that is keeping him stuck to the pipe was in the bath that he woke up in at the beginning. The rest of the film has been a battle of wits between him and the other man in the room, one with brutal and bloody twists, so this out of the blue, “do you not wish you had been paying attention earlier” revelation is quite chuckalicious in a way.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Saw 3D. At a scant ninety minutes and eleven seconds, including credits, even the main “game”‘s participant suffers from a serious lack of development. Part of this can be traced back to the fact that the film is trying to do too much with its scant running time. So when this poor woman caught in the middle of Jigsaw’s trap is shown urging one or the other man at the ends of the trap to kill each other, the fact that they eventually decide she is not worth it, and to let her die, becomes a poor payoff. As little as an extra thirty seconds, even a flashback, to properly establish the guilt of this woman to the audience, would have worked wonders. But this brings us to the intrinsic problem with the entire Saw franchise.
You see, the main reason we have a justice system in which a prosector must convince a jury of the defendant’s “peers” beyond all reasonable doubt that said defendant is guilty is because without that, justice becomes arbitrary. A system of justice is essentially what separates us from the savages, and when we start creatively executing people just for doing something that we do not like, it brings an element of savagery back to our society. So when Jigsaw executes a woman simply because she is playing two men against each other, and it seems their own senses of self-preservation, for her own material desires, the person who deserves to be shamed in this case is not the woman but rather the two men who have let her play them this way. That old saying, fool me once, shame on you, and so on, applies here.
A fundamental problem with serial slasher films is best described by going into the fundamental challenge that all stories must face. As I have stated elsewhere, most dramatic stories follow a three-act structure. Introduce a protagonist and set a challenge for them, show what is getting in the way of meeting that challenge, then describe how they either overcome or fail at that challenge. But the challenge of introducing a protagonist and an antagonist is often flip-flopped in slasher films. The two sides generally swap places, and this effectively leaves the writer and director with the challenge of making the audience care about the antagonist.
In the first two Saw films, Tobin Bell did a masterful job of making the audience accept his character. In essence, he and the script make the audience believe that as bad as he is, the people he is doing all of this nasty stuff to are, at best, not a whole lot better. The problem arises, however, when more and more people whose deserving of this kind of treatment is questionable get put through the grinder. The trap described above in which two men must choose between killing each other or allowing the woman they are told is playing them like a harp to die is an example of this. Whilst no Saw film that I can recall seeing crosses the line and destroys identification with the Jigsaw character, that is more due to Tobin Bell‘s awesome portrayal of the character than anything to do with the writing.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Costas Mandylor‘s character, a former detective by the name of Hoffman. Costas seems like a fairly decent actor from the limited amount of things I have seen him in outside of the Saw series, but the Saw films he is in give him almost nothing to work with. His character is flat-out unlikeable, and the idea that he is meant to be working with Jigsaw, or being considered as a successor, is a bit difficult to swallow.
Oh yeah, and just in case you are not already aware, the actual Jigsaw character was killed off at the end of Saw III. You see, one of the reasons he is doing all of these terrible things is because after his own natural inertia apparently caused some things to go belly-up in his personal life, he learned that his life, period, was coming to an end. After being told that he has a brain tumor that is inoperable, and trying to kill himself, he has an epiphany about how people do not really seem to appreciate what they have until they are in imminent danger of losing it all. Hence, he figures, he will subject people he sees as being of poor character to tests where the result of success is supposedly a newfound appreciation of life, whilst the consequence of failure is basically death. As I have said in other words, when the protagonist in such a scenario is made to seem genuinely deserving, it works.
Fortunately, the main story of Saw 3D presents a protagonist who seems really deserving of his situation. Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) attends regular meetings of people who have survived Jigsaw’s twisted games, has a book in print about the subject, and is also seen making a talk show appearance on the subject. One such meeting establishes him trying to give pep-talks to people who have survived the games, but ends with him being, in a manner of speaking, challenged by Doctor Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). The good Doctor, fans of the original film will recall, was the “victor” in the game depicted in the original Saw.
You see, Bobby is what we refer to in factory worker circles as a bullshit artist. In essence, he was watching news reports concerning Jigsaw’s activities, and got the idea to pose as a victim during a conversation about the subject. Hence, he has a trophy wife and a group of handlers who are either unaware of or invested in keeping his secret. Throughout the game that he wakes up to find himself in, he is tested in terms of keeping these people alive. Unfortunately, a large part of the problem in this part of the film is that the traps in these events often seem highly unreasonable and do not really relate that well to the misdeeds alleged. The fact that they also depend upon Bobby’s efforts to keep the victim alive, as opposed to the victims’ own efforts, also backfires when the impression is frequently received that Bobby gives up far too easily when one considers the stakes. However, the main thrust of the story itself is a good one, and keeps the audience interested where the thread about Hoffman and Jigsaw’s widow, Jill (Betsy Russell) fails.
Irony, as they say, is the spice of horror films. When a character brings about a horrific fate as a result of their own efforts in trying to avoid it, for example, it lends a comic bite to the outcome. Unfortunately, most of the Saw films emulate their central villain by being straightforward to a fault. Even Saw 3D, with its revelation concerning the post-game activity of Doctor Gordon, never makes anyone other than the type of person represented in one game about midway through the film state that they did not see that coming.
Do I recommend Saw 3D? Well, that is a hard question. If you are into films where people use Rube Goldberg inventions to kill people for transgressions against the killers’ moral codes, then you could certainly do worse than Saw 3D. The original is still by a long road the best film in the series, but Saw 3D at least presents a logical follow-up to it, as opposed to a cheap cash-in like its immediate three predecessors. But when Tobin Bell and Cary Elwes are discounted from the piece, I have to be honest: Saw 3D has almost nothing to recommend it.