First published in 1979, The Dead Zone was adapted by Jeffrey Boam (who also wrote Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, and cult vampire classic The Lost Boys) in 1983. The novel was also turned into a hit TV series of the same name in 2002, but that’s material for another day.
After a horrific car crash, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakens from a five year coma with the ability to see in to people’s future. This extra sensory perception enables him to avert several impending disasters and earns him celebrity status. But those missing years have cost him his job and his fiance Sarah (Brooke Adams) and he longs for his former existence minus his new “gift”. That is until he meets local politician and would-be Presidential Candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and sees future events of genuinely cataclysmic proportions. It is only then that Johnny must come to terms with his powers, his conscience and his destiny.
Christopher Walken plays the lead character of Johnny Smith, a name that director David Cronenberg was against using, and he does it with brooding brilliance. What surprised me about the movie is the way Smith responds to the ‘gift’ he has after the coma; he becomes totally withdrawn and sees it as a curse, barely using it. Walken exhibits his great skill as an actor here, for the most part being subtle and minimal in his actions. So when he does lose his cool in one key scene, it’s all the more effective. Martin Sheen is the liveliest character as the slightly insane but possible President Greg Stillson, a somewhat ironic role seeing as though in a film about seeing into the future, Sheen went on to portray a President in the 1999 TV series The West Wing.
The doomed romantic sub plot between Smith and his former fiance Sarah (played acceptably by Brooke Adams) starts out well enough, and there seems to be good chemistry between the two before the crash, but I just didn’t buy into it after he came out of the coma. Prior to his accident, Sarah invites Smith in for the night after a date; he declines, and says “some things can wait”, and proceeds to leave. Sarah then tells him to “drive safe”, which is pretty much a sign that there won’t be any safe driving in the next scene. When he wakes from the coma and is a little more able on his feet, Sarah visits him and says “some things are worth the wait”, and before long they’re getting rather intimate. Now to me, this isn’t romantic at all, and smacks of desperation, especially as she leaves him to go back to her husband. She pops back up again in the final scenes, which again are unbelievable in relation to being romantic.
Director David Cronenberg is known for his unique, grotesque style of body transformation seen in films such as The Fly, Scanners and Videodrome. Here though, he displays none of his usual visual style, but the negative and depressing tone that is present in a lot of his work still comes through. From the haunting piano score to the wholly serious nature of the subject matter and script, Cronenberg has pulled out all the stops to make you miserable. The closing scenes are ones that certainly rival The Mist for most depressing ending to a King movie.
Another point that needs raising is the real lack of plot. Yes, there’s the story of Smith gaining these powers and how he copes with them, but the movie is just a seemingly random set of events up until the last 25 minutes or so, where he meets Stillson. I would have loved to have seen the back story of Stillson, something that the book apparently has more of (I have yet to read this one). Due to the rushed nature of the main narrative, it’s another case where I don’t particularly care what happens to either of them, as with Smith’s relationship with Sarah.
As good as Walken and Sheen are in The Dead Zone, their time together on screen is simply not long enough, and more time is spent on sub plots that lead nowhere in the bigger picture. This is just my opinion remember; the vast majority of other reviews I’ve seen of this have been overwhelmingly positive, but I just cannot see why. It’s an average Science Fiction drama at best, elevated by the talents of the lead actor and supporting actor. If you’re a fan of King and Walken, check this out, but otherwise you’re not missing out on much.