[Written for Film.com]
Many of Robert Zemeckis’s films derive their energy from a technical challenge: how to combine real people with cartoons (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), how to reconfigure human bodies (Death Becomes Her), how to depict an alien world (Contact), how to make a fictional hero interact with news footage (Forrest Gump), how to put the same actor in the frame twice (Back to the Future Part II, an authentic piece of American weirdness and a movie that deserves better than to be lost in the middle of a popcorn trilogy).
So where does this put What Lies Beneath? This impeccable ghost story is utterly old-fashioned, a straightforward suspenser with no twists, no surprises (at least, nothing that hasn’t been given away by a curiously forthcoming ad campaign). Zemeckis applies an elegant mode of storytelling; there’s a satisfying sense of Hollywood professionalism at work here, at least until the jacked-up final ten minutes or so. But Zemeckis has never been good at understanding characters in any but the simplest ways; where Hitchcock greases his suspense machinery as a way of exposing human fears and frailties, What Lies Beneath simply turns the screws on a pair of stock figures.
For the first hour, Zemeckis has us in a firm grip. Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer), suffering from empty-nest syndrome, tries to ferret out the reasons a ghost would be playing hob in her big Vermont lakeside house. Initial suspicions fall on the bickering couple nextdoor (James Remar, Miranda Otto), and the film detours for quite a while in this direction. Claire’s busy husband Norman (Harrison Ford), a research professor, is rarely around, which allows Claire to have a Ouija-board session with a pal (Diana Scarwid).
It’s Pfeiffer’s movie; Ford graciously takes supporting duty. These days Pfeiffer’s face is all bones and eyes, which makes her a fittingly spooky presence to guide us into the spirit world. Her only really interesting scene comes when she is channeling a spirit, and she suddenly turns a kind of contemptuous sexuality on her unsuspecting hubby. There are moments in What Lies Beneath that hint at something more intriguing than the unsurprising answer to its mysteries: references to a car accident in Claire’s past, the death of her first husband, and a sharp look at the role of a faculty wife (the film’s portrait of a conjuring wife and professor husband recalls the horror semi-classic Burn, Witch, Burn and its sources).
Instead, the film settles for scattering clues, which dutifully pay off along the way. This process comes to feel laborious rather than involving, and the washed-out art direction and Alan Silvestri’s very derivative score don’t help. Is there something beneath What Lies Beneath? All that’s visible is a film director trying his hand at an expensive exercise. That isn’t enough.