Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: David M. Rosenthal
Writer: Jeff Buhler, Sarah Thorp
Producer: Will Packer, Mickey Liddell, Michael Gatta, Alison Rosenzweig, Pete Shilaimon, Jennifer Monroe
Stars: Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Nikki Beharie, Guy Burnet, Joseph Sikora, Karla Souza, Ritchie Coster, Jon Eyez
Haunting hallucinations plague a former military medic as he unravels a frightening mystery connecting PTSD patients to a secret drug.
A former military medic still haunted by memories of his brother Isaac dying in Afghanistan, Jacob Singer currently works as a doctor treating fellow veterans afflicted with PTSD. Encounters with unstable ex-soldiers are a daily occurrence in his profession. But a peculiar run-in with Isaac’s old platoon partner Paul widens a rabbit hole in the very fabric of Jacob’s fragile reality.
Impossibly, Paul claims Isaac is not only alive, but living among a secret society of vets who’ve been guinea pigs for an experimental drug. Jacob dismisses Paul as delusional. Then a startling event coupled with visions of mutated people vanishing before his eyes causes Jacob to question everything he believed. Jacob’s journey underground gradually takes him deeper into a hallucinatory world of creatures, conspiracies, and an unsettling mystery poised to unravel his mind.
A second mystery surrounds “Jacob’s Ladder,” but that one is easier to solve. It’s the case of a remake first written in 2013, shot in 2016, test screened in 2017, then delayed repeatedly until a DISH Network dump in 2019. Why would it take three years for a finished film to finally find a release date? If you guessed it’s because “Jacob’s Ladder” isn’t particularly “good,” you hit the #1 reason why any movie encounters delays during a beleaguered post-production stage. Stakeholders discovered they were sitting on a bomb, but realized they had nowhere to safely explode it.
However, I’m here to counter that “Jacob’s Ladder” 2019 is not “as bad” as the nasty negativity around it wants everyone to believe. When I sat down to view the film, it held a pitiably low 3.0 user rating on IMDb. Although it bounced back to 2.7 as of this writing, that number sunk to 2.2 by the end of the 90 minutes it took to watch the movie.
Unless content is irredeemably appalling or onscreen efforts are visibly careless, neither of which applies here, virtually no professionally-produced motion picture with real actors truly deserves an aggregate score in the twos. Those are rankings reserved to warn people away from homemade “found footage” films or throwaway thrillers with the world “Amityville” in the title. “Jacob’s Ladder” is nowhere near awful enough to warrant being lumped lower than “Trancers 6” and “Creepshow 3” (review here).
Skim through unfavorable reviews of “Jacob’s Ladder” and you’ll find the common complaint involves the word “remake” preceded by some synonym for “unnecessary.” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 version starring Tim Robbins became a cult classic, so people bash this 2019 incarnation purely on principle of it not being on par with the original, which is an irrational reason to be rankled.
In fairness to its fans, I’ll qualify that I do not share their reverent nostalgia for the 1990 film. I was in high school when it came out and haven’t felt compelled to revisit it since. What I remember most is that Siskel and Ebert gave the movie “two thumbs up” and it was a rare horror-adjacent VHS available at my local library. Combined with heavy themes involving Vietnam-related commentary, this made “Jacob’s Ladder” something of a “prestige” thriller in my mind.
But another thing I remember is being bored. Although adult me would undoubtedly feel differently, back then I was more interested in killer puppets and crazy curses. “ Jacob’s Ladder” was over this disinterested teenager’s head and I went the next 30 years never giving it another thought.
Fortunately, that lack of passion for the 1990 movie primes me to accept the 2019 film at face value. If you want a fair shot at even remotely enjoying “Jacob’s Ladder,” you too should drop any baggage tied to idolizing the original. I’m comfortable generalizing the unfair critical consensus as being dominantly related to remake fatigue, in this case exacerbated by a sudden declaration that “Jacob’s Ladder” is somehow sacred ground. If you want to be as annoyed as these naysayers, feel free to keep a checklist with one column for deviations from the first film and another to track your mounting disappointment.
To clarify, I’m not going on the record to defend “Jacob’s Ladder” 2019 as anything more than “acceptably average.” I certainly won’t defend its writing. “Jacob’s Ladder” exploits a particular pet peeve by using dialogue to unnaturally deliver exposition. One exchange has Jacob telling his best buddy, “as a trauma surgeon, I have no official opinion.” Said buddy replies, “as your pharmacist, I have no clue what you’re talking about.” You know, exactly how normal people speak when referencing themselves by profession for the audience’s benefit.
At least “Jacob’s Ladder” doesn’t have a problem with its performers. Actors do the best they can with formulaic material that’s definitely beneath their abilities.
Between “Almost Human” on the TV side and “The Intruder” (review here) on the cinema side, Michael Ealy is practically a poster child for a reliable actor often tied to unremarkable projects. Here, Ealy just has to express puzzlement 90% of the time. His Jacob is a character made mostly out of lines on a scrunched face, although Ealy really does give all the gusto he can to squeeze drops of charismatic blood out of an underwritten stone.
Jesse Williams is equally engaging as Jacob’s soldier sibling suffering from PTSD, even though he doesn’t feature in nearly as much screen time. Nikki Beharie sees her inclusion as Jacob’s wife reduced to an ancillary plot propeller with no agency of her own. In a weird juxtaposition, the cast’s commitment to playing a $5 script like it’s a pile of gold highlights how much better they are than this movie. In turn they demonstrate how talent can emotionally elevate perfunctory scripting once the camera turns on.
“Jacob’s Ladder” feels like it gives up on its story with a last act that limps into an unsatisfying reveal and lightning quick wrap-up. The prologue turns out to be a total cheat too. Then again, in the bigger picture of the movie’s mediocrity, I can afford the film some forgiveness, as even in its deepest nadir it is more bland than bad. Leveling out as an inoffensively tame supernatural thriller, “Jacob’s Ladder” is merely a placid potboiler that’s also serviceably watchable in a low investment, disposable entertainment sort of way.
Review Score: 50