I heard somewhere that Harrison Ford turned down the lead in another highly profitable 2000 film in order to do "What Lies Beneath." I wonder if he regrets the decision as much as I do. The movie boasts some surefire star power in Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, a surefire director in Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," "Contact"), and a surefire ghost-story idea, following hard on the heels of "The Sixth Sense." And the movie probably would have worked if it hadn't been for its overdone plot. And its wordy dialogue. And its dead-end red herrings. And its drawn-out, imitative, melodramatic, and wholly unbelievable climax. To say nothing of the fact that the disposition of its male protagonist will probably outrage every Harrison Ford fan on the planet. Besides that, you might enjoy it.
Ford and Pfeiffer play an ideal married couple, Norman and Claire Spencer. He is a research scientist working on some kind of breakthrough or other; she is the beautiful mother of a teenage daughter, Caitlin (Katherine Towne), about to go off to college. The couple's relationship is ideal. Their friends are ideal. And their house is ideal, overlooking a lake. Then a ghost shows up.
I'm not saying the movie doesn't have its frightening moments, mind you. There are a couple of scenes that will have you on the edge of your seat, and at least two times where you may be startled right out of it. But these moments are few and far between and occur mainly in the first half of the film. Most of the time, you listen to the couple talk. And talk and talk and talk. When the ghost finally does show up, it's a beautiful young lady rising from the bathtub, which is just one of the film's problems. Besides being contrived, I didn't find it very scary. Indeed, I suspect that many men would find the prospect of a beautiful young woman haunting their house rather appealing.
Anyway, true to ghost-story tradition, only Claire sees the ghost, and, of course, at first she tells no one about it. Later, as she begins to see and feel its presence even more, she confides her fears to Norman, who sends her off to a psychiatrist. Again, true to ghost-story movies everywhere, as Claire is the only one who ever sees the ghost, naturally, no one believes her. While the first third of the film is fairly realistic and sometimes quite chilling, the clichés quickly begin to mount, and by the last third of the film everything falls apart into absurdity.
How long did Zemeckis expect his audience to suspend their disbelief? He already proved his worth in previous fantasy and sci-fi films, where he held our incredulity in check for the duration of the story telling; but here he is attempting what he admits is a latter-day Hitchcock thriller, where things are supposed to remain at least partially believable. Hitchcock would never have led his audience on the way Zemeckis does, with a plausible and suspenseful build up of tension, and then dumped them into a grade-B potboiler at the end. The only real connection to Hitchcock discernible in this film is the Harrison Ford character's name, Norman, which should give you a clue to what he's about.
In the accompanying documentary, Zemeckis goes on at length about what Hitchcock might have done today had he the kind of digital special effects available now. My own guess is that he probably wouldn't have used them much. But Zemeckis is known for special effects and use them he does. His idea is to take a typically Hitchcockian theme, like turning the commonplace into the extraordinary, and either exaggerate it beyond belief, like the film's ending, or do little with it at all, like the house. Yes, the house is a definite character in the story, a lovely two-level, New England-style, lakeside abode, which in the daylight is supposed to be entirely enchanting but at night, shot from a low angle, is supposed to be eerie and menacing. But it isn't. At night, in the moonlight, it's as charming as ever. So the gimmick doesn't work.
The idea is that things aren't always what they appear, but in this film when things go awry, we feel cheated that we haven't been properly prepared for them. I don't want to give away any more, but if you've seen the film's trailer you already know that the studio itself gave away the film's major secrets well ahead of time.
Pressing on. DreamWorks engineers reproduce the movie on DVD in a generous 2.17:1-ratio anamorphic screen size that looks pretty good most of the time. Colors are sharp and clear; definition is fine; and most shadings are natural except in faces, which occasionally take on a slight purplish tinge. There are no artifacts to speak of, but the overall luster of the transfer is often subdued, whether intentionally or not I don't know.
The sound is provided by Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS Digital Surround, or Dolby 2.0 Surround. I was impressed by the subtlety of the DD 5.1 mix, especially the superb directionality of the little sounds like tinkling glass and blowing breezes and the enveloping ambiance of a musical track that often sneaks up on you unexpectedly.
As for bonus items, the disc has its fair, if not always rewarding, share. The main item is a full-feature audio commentary with director Robert Zemeckis and several of the film's producers. The narrators are earnest and informative, but, frankly, after about fifteen minutes I found them deadly dull. In their defense, I had listened a couple of nights before to Arlo Gurthrie's commentary on "Alice's Restaurant" and found Arlo so thoroughly delightful that Zemeckis and company had a hard act to follow. The disc also includes a fifteen-minute documentary, "Constructing the Perfect Thriller," that is for the most part a brief history of Mr. Zemeckis's filmmaking career with a little about "What Lies Beneath" tacked on at the end. Then there are cast and filmmaker biographies, production notes, twenty-four animated scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. It's all tied together by one of those slow-moving, live-action menu systems that can be so frustrating to navigate through when you want to access something in a hurry. English is the only language provided for speech and subtitles.
I couldn't help thinking while watching "What Lies Beneath" of the 1996 film "The Frighteners," a comedy thriller with Michael J. Fox. That ghost story was far different from this one and far from perfect as well, but as silly as it was, at least it knew where it was going and had fun getting there. "What Lies Beneath" takes itself much too seriously for much too long and then expects us to accept its hokey, horror-movie ending. It just doesn't work. The question I have is why Ford, Pfeiffer, and Zemeckis couldn't see that it wouldn't work from reading the script. Surely, three people of their talent should have smelled out this turkey far in advance.