Despite being around 40 years old, "Carrie" has established itself as a timeless tale - the sort of thing that should be able to be reimagined every couple decades with the same sequence of events but the details of how kids interact tweaked to reach a newer audience. With bullying being a constant current buzzword, a remake for today's kids was fairly inevitable. Signing on director Kimberly Peirce who studied similar themes in the painfully powerful "Boys Don't Cry" seemed like a risk that said this version would definitely push the power of the story's themes, perhaps even at the expense of the plot.
Most people know "Carrie's morality story - an outcast teenage girl is humiliated at school when she freaks out having her first period in the locker room. What the girls don't know is that the onset of puberty also unleashes the girl's telekinetic powers that build and build as the bullying against her continues. Meanwhile her crazy, pseudo-religious mother torments her even more, convincing her even the most basic of human emotions are sins of the devil. There's a prom, pig blood and tragedy. All this is present in Peirce's version of the story, pretty much note for note.
King's story has a built in metaphorical weight - the characters are set up in broad strokes - the outcast, the pretty girl with a conscience, the pretty mean girl, the jock with the heart of gold, the well-intended teacher. Each character falls into place pretty much as expected and it certainly creates an explosive mix. There's a heightened reality to the story, making it more of a parable than anything. Peirce's mistake is in how she presents the characters - instead of elevating them, she lowers everyone, making them presumably more realistic, but diluting the power of the character interactions and thus lessening the impact of the story's powerhouse climax. That the movie feels more polite than mean-spirited and more like an after school special than a potboiler horror movie is a colossal misfire.
Really, the problems start with casting. Chloe Grace Moretz is a talented young actress who tends to draw attention to herself in supporting roles and does that even moreso here. No amount of crinkling her hair, taking off her makeup and frumping her posture and clothing can change the fact that Moretz is a charismatic and attractive person. She isn't convincing as an ugly duckling and her personality is way too warm to convince that she's been kept at arm's length her entire life. She'd really be a great Sue Snell, the character who's supposed to show a kindness beyond her looks. As Snell herself Gabriella Wilde is a Barbie doll at most. Judy Greer as Mrs. Desjardin, the teacher who tries her best to befriend Carrie, has more of an oddball quirkiness to her and never quite settles into any spot in the story. She's not quite warm enough to be a convincing mother figure for Carrie, nor is she much of a foil for the bad girls populating the story.
Speaking of the bad guys, the story has two. Carrie's mother, played here by Julianne Moore and Chris Hargensen, another student who gets off (literally) on tormenting Carrie. This time around Hargensen is played by Portia Doubleday and she has the hateful kick of a spoiled little rich girl, although the material doesn't really ever convincingly illustrate her hatred for Carrie White. Moore's problems are a bit like Moretz, no amount of frumping her wardrobe and self-mutilation can help the character here who is more two-dimensional than she even is on the page. The character is interesting as a monster but trying to layer her here and trying to dial down her vicious obsession with her god and her daughter takes away her bite and, again, doesn't clarify the powder keg that Carrie finds herself living in.
And maybe that's it -- for the story to work best there needs to be a feeling that Carrie is being attacked from all sides and that even when something good happens to her - a nice, handsome boy asking her to the prom, for example - it should create that feeling that something bad's going to happen. Here we expect something bad to happen simply because we know the story, instead of fearing something bad is going to happen because of the mood and tone of the characters and story.
Then there's the question of Carrie White's destructive powers. The issue here is that as she learns about her powers and learns to harness them a bit, it almost brings Carrie out of her shell, instead of driving her more deeply into it. She starts to smile a lot, she watches videos (online of course because this is SO modern) and all of a sudden starts to feel like she belongs. It almost feels more like a super hero learning they can fly than a terrified girl realizing she has a power that makes her even more of an outcast than she already was. If she's not afraid of herself and her power, why should we be? Even when doused in pig blood by Chris Hargensen's mean-spirited trick, Moretz uses magical hand gestures to use her power, like one of the X-Men. It lacks the feeling of someone releasing primal energy trapped inside themself. Even the pig blood itself ends up looking more like a Hollywood makeup job than it does an attack that strips her of her dignity.
There's a prom, of course, and all the insanity that comes with it. Here, Carrie's revenge feels more controlled, more conscious an effort. But since the character shows no darkness until that point, her sudden mean streak and deliberate attacks on people who she feels wronged her doesn't feel right. She doesn't feel like a victim, nor does she turn into a monster, she just turns into an attacker and despite everything that's happened to her, it doesn't necessarily feel justified. It also doesn't feel like she finally turns into a monster - unable to control the power inside her as she is unleashed on a world that created her. Carrie White, even at her most vicious and violent, is a sympathetic character as we should be able to see the deadly series of events that created her. This version of the story doesn't create that sensation.
The evening's not a total loss, mind you. There's a genuine sweetness to Alex Russell as Tommy Nolan, the teenaged heartthrob convinced by his girlfriend to take Carrie to the prom and their time together at the dance is downright charming. He certainly has more chemistry with Moretz than he does with the icily attractive Wilde. Early scenes with Carrie and her mother have Carrie calling out her mother's Bible-references and self-created nonsense, giving it the beginnings of an Old Testament vs. New Testament angle.
Ulimately, though, the world created here is too TV-movie bland and the story is too pasty and dialed down to really exploits its inherent grindhouse power. The movie posters this time around promise we will remember her name. That might be the case, but that's not because of this version of the story. This one's much more likely to be forgotten sooner rather than later.