The end is only the beginning
Saw was never going to end and remain that way; at its lowest point, which was Saw VI, individual titles made six times their budget at least, with the “final” movie making 136 million dollars from a 20 million budget. Only the latest movie, Spiral, made 37 million from a 40 million budget – in the midst of a worldwide pandemic – can be seen as a failure, but that would be harsh on a movie that opened to a fraction of the markets, in relation to the other entries, and had to be noticed when the world was literally burning as well as make a profit in the midst of a rising 4th wave of the COVID virus. But, while the franchise was bound to go on, the storyline or the formula used for the previous movies would eventually bleed the franchise dry; it needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later. For this article, I want to talk about these two attempts and what future attempts should take note of; what did Jigsaw get right and wrong; what did Spiral bring to the table and should it be noted or discarded? Did these two attempts right the wrongs of the past, did the change too much, or did they change very little? While the last week had its moments, watching through the entirety of Saw movies back-to-back only to watch the “spinoffs/reboots” gave me a new perspective and some interesting points for the franchise and the last two movies.
Jigsaw (2017) was written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, directed by the Spierig brothers, and starred (of all people) Tobin Bell as John Kramer/Jigsaw – a character that has been dead for 4 movies now. As soon as I saw the news, I immediately lost interest; credit where it’s due though, the trailer made a good case for why I should care. For the majority of the franchise, Saw had fallen into a safe zone with its visuals that was only broken by Saw 3D – they all looked dirty and cheap, while 3D went for a cartoonish look – and it seemed like Jigsaw was going to show the world of Saw with a style that wasn’t really seen before. They also marketed this as the beginning of a new chapter for the franchise, but as we know now, it failed to do that. If the central question I want answered out of this article is “how did the two reboots try to restart the franchise?” then Jigsaw’s answer was pretty disappointing; keep it mostly the same to please old fans and add enough style and “uniqueness” to intrigue newcomers. It does this pretty well, but what Jigsaw proves is that the convoluted nature of the original franchise is just too much to deal with – at least for a fan of the franchise. I was done with the Saw movies trying to connect everything by the 4th movie and now we are at 8 Saw movies trying to tie everything together, despite how cartoonishly goofy and silly they have gotten. Having said that, all of that baggage just makes a bad ending terrible and a misguided attempt to have one last final twist feel mind-breaking bad; what comes before that ending was actually pretty good. The Spierig brothers have done a pretty good job injecting some style into the Saw franchise, using CGI sparingly to add some modern flair, while working very hard to create a better paced Saw movie than all the others; in an hour and a half, Jigsaw deals with two games, an investigation of one of those games, and two timelines. It is not without fault; there are plenty of “logical” errors obviously (this is a Saw movie still), but more importantly it is playing a chess move that can be foreseen a thousand miles away. Every set-up for the ending can be easily deduced by how those “pawns” are showed and placed in the movie; again, giving credit where its due, the twist of Kramer’s game that we were seeing being in the past was actually well handled. Furthermore, the trap designs felt more “tasteful” this time; take that with a grain of salt as I’ve seen all Saw movies back-to-back and my mind may have broken and your mileage may vary. Still, the biggest problems of the franchise as a whole are still there; the traps are just an excuse to show gore, they have nothing meaningful about them; the terrible ending tries to tie everything back together in a way that absolutely breaks the story and puts a target on all the inconsistencies I was happy to ignore, and in all the ways it doesn’t make sense with what came before. In a weird way, Jigsaw is a reboot aimed at fans of the original and not to gain new fans; I feel like the only reason I’m not as critical or frustrated with Jigsaw is because I watched Saw V and Saw IV. I’ve seen how bad the franchise can get and Jigsaw is not that; its paced really well, it has got some neat ideas (it doesn’t explore them in any meaningful way, but that’s more than any Saw movie since 3), and it has a style – both in visuals and writing – that at least made me feel like someone actually tried to engage with all the problems and traits of this franchise to make a good entry. Despite the issues, Jigsaw was the first time since 3 I felt like there was intent and effort put into making a genuinely great movie, but ultimately failed.
I wish I could say the same about Spiral. I, amongst others, remember watching the initial trailer for the new Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock movie, only to start picking up on clues, before the mic drop moment that made me want this movie so badly; I am of course, referring to the legendary line of “you wanna play games, motherfucker?!”. I never knew I needed to see that so badly, but here we are. Spiral was written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger again, but it was directed by veteran of the franchise Darren Lynn Bousman, and obviously stars Chris Rock and Sam Jackson as son-father cop duo chasing a Jigsaw copycat that is targeting cops. In the question of how to reboot Saw, Spiral’s answer is more interesting but ultimately very disappointing, again. Spiral puts forth a gritty storyline, injected with skepticism and commentary on current topics like police brutality, a return to outlandish traps that have gory results, alongside some comedic relief and genuine star power; in its answer to the reboot question, Spiral seems to believe that the biggest problem with the Saw franchise was the convoluted storyline, the boring protagonists, the elaborate plans; while all that is true, what Spiral fails to do is replace them with what it suggests are the solutions. The story is superficially gritty, skeptic, and scathing on modern issues, because those topics are not explored on any satisfying detail or conclusion; Chris Rock is a far better protagonist from any other Saw movie, but his skills as an actor and comedian alongside his natural charisma, demand a far better written character which Zeke is not – he is a noir stereotype played straight in a story that cares more about the traps and the blood rather than the characters; the convoluted storyline is thankfully gone, but it is replaced by a boring world with nothing interesting about it. There are details scattered around like a fake law that gave cops too much power or Zeke being stigmatized by his decision to do the right thing, but these are mentioned in passing, inside of scenes that are mostly about trying to make sure the twist makes sense at the end. Despite these issues, Rock and Jackson have great chemistry and have done a great job translating their best traits for the movie’s benefit; their banter and comedy are not misplaced or stick out, they feel part of the characters and the world. It is also the first Saw movie that makes a bit of sense; that’s not to say what happens is logical, but it doesn’t have as many “holes” as previous entries. However, what details are wrong made me more frustrated than ever. Partly due to how excited I was for this movie to finally break the chain and actually be a good movie; partly because, I was hoping the star power, the increased budget, the wealth of options to draw inspiration from, would finally lead Saw to a better path. In the end, Spiral was another Saw movie; the traps did have some connection to the victims this time (not all of them), but they were mostly there to create a gory mess (some did get me cringing this time, so good on them I guess?); the twist was predictable and silly, but not outrageous or mind-breaking problematic; the added comedy and new song selections made it feel more unique at the very least. All of these issues and decent attempts can all be summed up in one word: underwhelming. The twist was underwhelming; the story was underwhelming; the traps were (on the whole) underwhelming. The cast was good, the idea was decent, but (and it pains me deeply to say this) not even Sam Jackson nailing this movie’s legendary line can save this movie from being…underwhelming.
So, how do you reboot Saw, according to the two attempts. Stylized presentation is a must; both movies were at their best when the style was front and center. Get rid of the storyline; Jigsaw was good until they decided to tie the end with the previous Saw movies and Spiral’s issues have nothing to do with the absence of the previous titles – in fact, it would have pushed Spiral from disappointing to bad, had they been included. Make the traps interesting again; this is a contention point with fans, but I feel like traps that are thematically appropriate with their victims and the reason they are there, can both be narratively satisfying and as gory as a torture chamber in hell, so it’s a win-win. Have a story; Spiral’s biggest failure was the fact that the ideas and topics it chose were genuinely interesting to explore for the Saw franchise, but they just don’t explore them, while Jigsaw’s complete lack of a story worked better to a degree, but the moments that stuck with me was when that wasn’t the case like the protagonist’s assistant being a Jigsaw fan like thousand others. I am hopeful that the 10th time’s the charm for the franchise and that the original, psychological-horror vision of Wan and Whannell can be modernized and be reinvigorated/reintroduced to what Saw has mutated into over the years. The reboots have shown this potential to be true at points; traps where the themes, the characters, the gore, and the spectacle are just right; stories that don’t frustrate but entertain; twists that can be genuinely surprising. However, they also show the complete opposite of all these moments as well (and then some). If Jigsaw (2017) was an understeer, Spiral an oversteer, hopefully next time they will have the feel for it and get the balance just right.