HEARTS IN ATLANTIS
directed by Scott Hicks with Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, and David Morse opens Sept. 28 at Majestic Bay, Meridian, Metro, Oak Tree, and others
STEPHEN KING adaptations are a mixed bag. You've got The Shining and you've got Maximum Overdrive. Beginning with the watershed 1976 teen-horror picture Carrie (still hugely influential and effective), IMDb lists no less than 64 film and television treatments of his novels and stories. If nothing else, King makes every other professional writer in America feel terribly lazy and unproductive. Yet the cost of such prolific output is that he does tend to repeat his themes—and those of other, better authors—in what can be defined as two basic King modes, both reprised and combined in the pleasant, forgettable Hearts in Atlantis.
First there's the nostalgic haze of childhood exemplified by 1986's Stand by Me, with golden oldies, endless summers, and buzz cuts. Boys, especially, make eternal pacts with their pals, then reluctantly prepare to enter adulthood. Omniscient narrators explain the significance of events from their sage grown-up perspectives. Kids fly kites, ride bikes, and generally deport themselves as if in a Hallmark commercial. Trees are green; the sun hangs low in the dusty sky; everyone's crazy about baseball.
Then there's the rabid dogs, axe- wielding writers, telekinetic prom queens, demented literary fans, spooky pet cemeteries, cornfield-dwelling killers, murderous cars, hidden Nazi war criminals, pyrokinetic tykes, and, yes, finally, all those unhappily clairvoyant types— epitomized by Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone—of his less wholesome fare.
Frankly, we prefer the latter, which is why Atlantis falls flat as a movie. As directed by Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars), it's handsomely burnished in the way all nostalgia pictures are. In what appears to be Providence, R.I., circa 1960s, 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) yearns only for a Schwinn Black Phantom that his single-parent mother can't afford. Without making her a harridan, King stacks the deck against the vain, flawed Liz (Next Stop Wonderland's Hope Davis). He just can't create plausible women characters unless they can, say, cause other people's heads to explode. Indeed, Atlantis is very much a boys' show.
BOBBY SOON BONDS with the family's elusive new upstairs tenant, Ted (Anthony Hopkins), who becomes—you guessed it—the father figure the kid fervently desires. True, the guy's a bit strange and not a little pretentious with his quotations from Ben Johnson and Pasternak—but he knows baseball and boxing, so Bobby's glad to read him the paper for a buck a week. The other part of his paid assignment is more odd: Ted tells him to keep an eye out for "the low men" who he claims are following him.
Bobby initially humors Ted, then glimpses his moments of epilepsy-like rapture—recall the eponymous "shining" of The Shining—that imply the old codger has valid reason to be fearful. Moreover, Ted's psychic powers appear to rub off on his young ward—but, alas, no exploding heads result.
Instead, director Hicks rather clumsily juxtaposes Bobby's idyllic puppy-love relationship with the girl next door against Atlantis' more ominous subtext. The movie is a Cold War fairy tale in a way, initially suggesting some X-Files- like promise, in which heightened normalcy and the paranormal can't be sorted out. Unfortunately, Hicks overwhelms these dark undercurrents with Bobby and his two best pals cavorting in the woods in scenes that even Norman Rockwell would be ashamed to paint.
Ted's cracker-barrel wisdom ("We're all time's captives") and the commentary of adult Bobby (David Morse) amount to a sentimental-metaphysical stew strongly recalling the last big King adaptation, The Green Mile (where at least you got to watch someone's head explode). Short on gore but long on treacle, Atlantis is a bland tearjerker where nobody dies (on camera) and the worst injury suffered is a dislocated shoulder. There's no harm in seeing it and no hurt in avoiding it.