The Plot: On the way home from a date with his sweetheart Sarah (Brooke Adams), school teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma. Five years later, Johnny awakens to find that Sarah has moved on with her life and is now married and the mother of a ten month old son. That's not all that has changed in the past five years, though. Johnny discovers that he now has the unexplainable ability to see into a person's past and/or future when he comes into physical contact with them. After he uses his newfound ability to help the local police solve a long-running murder case, news shows and people in need of all manner of help begin to hound Johnny, forcing him to relocate and live in seclusion. However, after shaking hands with soon-to-be presidential candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny catches a disturbing glimpse of the future. Now he must go to drastic measures to stop what he saw in his vision from coming to pass.
The Review: I think that most people would classify The Dead Zone as a thriller, but to me it is most accurately categorized as a science fiction film. Sure, the movie is thrilling, but it relies more on the concept of Johnny Smith's unique powers than it does on the threat at hand. The event that Johnny tries to stop is merely the vessel through which the "dead zone" is explained and showcased to the viewer. As Dr. Willis McNelly said, "The true protagonist of [a science fiction] story or novel is an idea and not a person." In addition, another quote that I am rather fond of regarding science fiction and it's general purpose comes from Philip K. Dick: "If it is good [science fiction] the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramifications in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader's mind so that that mind, like the author's, begins to create. Thus [science fiction] is creative and it inspires creativity..." I personally feel that this statement applies greatly to The Dead Zone inasmuch as through the entire film I was coming up with different ways that the plot could branch out and eventually came to the realization that the possibilities dealing with the film's premise were nearly endless. Hence, if Dick's comment is true, The Dead Zone is an example of, as he puts it, "good" science fiction.
The sci-fi/supernatural concept aside, what really makes The Dead Zone worth watching is the amazing performance by Christopher Walken. These days Walken's name is associated more closely with cow bells and wrist watches stuck up people's asses than it is with quality acting, but what many people forget is that amidst all of the humorous cameo appearances he has been making in blockbuster comedies lately are several decades worth of great dramatic character pieces. His serious performances in films such as King of New York and Catch Me If You Can are awe-inspiring, and his turn in The Dead Zone is no different. Everything from Walken's facial expressions and line deliveries to the uncomfortable silences and his character's limp are perfectly executed and manage to bring a great level of validity to what could have been a rather hard to swallow plot. He grounds all of the events in reality which allowed the (at the time) still up-and-coming director David Cronenberg to concentrate on adding his own recognizable style to the film without having to worry about losing anyone's attention. In other words, he made Cronenberg look good (not that he really needed the help).
The supporting cast is for the most part quite good. Brooke Adams, while only in a few scenes, gives the viewer the feeling that she is really broken up about what happened between her character and Walken's. Sean Sullivan and Jackie Burroughs, who played Johnny's parents, both felt as though they were overacting a bit, but were generally harmless. Herbert Lom was genuinely likable and convincing as Dr. Weizak. As his character progressed and began to show signs of becoming obsessed with and protective of Johnny and his condition, I honestly wanted to see more of him and where he was heading, but in the end he served is purpose well enough. Anthony Zerbe was interesting to watch, though his character's demeanor seemed to take a 180 degree turn at one point just to further the plot, and Tom Skerritt appears briefly as a police officer toward the beginning of the film, though he isn't given much to do, which is a shame. Finally, we have Martin Sheen as the brash senator-in-the-running Greg Stillson. Sheen's performance was fine, but what I was most amazed by was how similar his voice is to his son Charlie's. I swear that if I closed my eyes during the movie I would have pictured Charlie Sheen delivering those lines instead of his father.
All of my problems with the film, which are minor ones at best, are related to the script as opposed to the acting or direction. The beginning of the movie felt a bit rushed and ambiguous. It's almost as though the screenwriter wasn't sure how to introduce Johnny Smith's new abilities to the audience; a problem that I find odd considering that the film is based on a book by Stephen King. Having not read the book myself, I suppose there's a possibility that it's opening is equally as poorly written as that of the movie, but my bet is that this fault can be placed solely on the screenwriter's shoulders. Another slight problem that I had with The Dead Zone is that the first half of the film felt somewhat disjointed from the second half. The first fifty minutes or so revolve around the origin of Johnny's abilities and then jumps right into a murder mystery which wraps itself up much quicker than I'd expected. From that point we jump to a new location with all new supporting characters and a completely new plot and antagonist. In this way the film almost feels like two episodes of a television show combined to form a feature film, but it's not so jarring that it ruins the viewing experience. In fact, I may just be overanalyzing the film in an attempt to find some flaws.
The Verdict: I hesitate to say that The Dead Zone is a movie that anyone and everyone would enjoy, but if you like to have a good think both during and after watching something, chances are you'll like it. As Philip K. Dick would say, "Joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness."