Take The Fly and subtract Videodrome — voila, you’ve entered The Dead Zone.
One might not assume that the mix of Cronenberg and Steven King would produce something like this, because it isn’t a nightmare never forgotten — after a few commercial failures, Cronenberg attempted to go ‘legit’ with a mainstream film. He chose The Dead Zone, and so we learned something, that the mix of Cronenberg and King wouldn’t produce something horrific, but heartbreaking.
King is a master of storytelling. Not only a factory of high concept premises, but a brilliant mind servicing each stage of a narrative. The Dead Zone was one of his few experiments with working from an outline, which is why this feels like a high concept premise and a high concept ending — one supports the other to round out a perfect story.
Cronenberg, though he’d probably never admit it, has a deep sensitivity to humanity. As cold and clinical as some of his films may be (the pure substance in Dead Ringers, or even the aforementioned Videodrome), the writer/director understands that emotion is central to bringing otherworldly information to ground, and that it is of course, a profound end delivery.
We feel for Johnny Smith because he’s an everyman, even slightly nerdier than some. He’s got a good heart, and this is his downfall. It’s the story of a person rising to an occasion, involving us in an increasingly wild adventure that speaks of seeing the future and of nuclear doom. It presents a moral choice, and so like all successful zombie media, asks our opinion.
This is how we align ourselves with the emotional center of the film, by comparing ourselves with the protagonist as he contemplates and ultimately chooses sacrifice. He didn’t ask for this fate, but knows that it’s the only right option.
King in part based the story on an image, or an idea, of what was at that time, America’s great boogeyman — the elevated man with a rifle. He took this character and asked why? Not to normalize a terrorist, but to explore how a man becomes an assassin.
This was a theme already explored by Cronenberg, but much less lucidly. King’s storytelling method here is on display, and Cronenberg has facilitated the lessons in a form that incorporates soulful performances and unique direction with that classic body horror gloss.
(Where? Not just in the young policeman’s suicide, which is one of the most horrific things depicted in a Cronenberg movie, probably because of how graspable the idea is, but in how the fabric of plot takes shape — this is a very Cronenberg movie, a film about transformation and violence.)