by Scott MendelsonSaw VII is an unnecessary epilogue to a series that already had a pretty satisfying finale. Saw VI succeeded in returning Tobin Bell to the center stage, while devising a compelling story that brought the story full circle and tied up every reasonable loose end. Saw VII adds nothing of value to the universe, aside from a last-minute 'twist' that anyone with half-a-brain could see coming from the first reel. It also may very well be the worst film in the long-running franchise. It is sloppily plotted and abysmally-acted. Worst of all, it seemingly goes out of its way to avoid every element that made the series unique and worth defending. This is a Saw picture that makes one embarrassed to have enjoyed the prior installments.
A token amount of plot: Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) has failed in her attempt to murder Jigsaw apprentice Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), and he's plenty upset about it. Seeking protection, she turns to Internal Affairs officer Gibson (Chad Donella), who is all-too ready to believe Tuck's accusations due to his personal dealings with Hoffman. Meanwhile, a bestselling author who made his fortune on his story as a Jigsaw survivor (Sean Patrick Flannery) is about to find himself and those close to him put to the test yet again. You'll notice what's not included in the plot synopsis, and that's any reference to John Kramer himself. Sure enough, Tobin Bell literally has a single brief scene in the entire picture, plus a token appearance in the climactic montage of exposition. Just as the Halloween sequels have been given a certain gravitas by the continuing appearances of Donald Pleasence, the Saw series have always used the compelling presence of Mr. Bell to give it a certain edge. Bell's low-key menace had a way of keeping the other actors in check, making sure that few overacted and/or chewed the scenery.
Without Bell to anchor the film, the picture falls headfirst into the realm of stupidity. Every actor gives a truly terrible performance, especially the newbies. Sean Patrick Flannery stumbles without a net as the primary target. He, like Angus Macfadyen in Saw III and Peter Outerbridge in Saw VI, is forced to walk through a maze of horrors, faced with an escalating series of tasks that require him to suffer in order to save those around him. But the film lacks the emotional pull of Macfadyen coping with his son's death and Outerbridge's empathetic horror as he is forced to put his personal philosophy to the test. Flannery's Bobby is just a lying butt-head who wanders around while his colleagues are slaughtered in the usual assortment of elaborate traps (unlike Saw VI, there is no suspense as there are no real choices to be made). Chad Donell gives a truly terrible performance, seemingly haven taken cop-acting lessons from Chris Klein. Yet these two characters are supposed to anchor an entire motion picture that posits to end a six-year long series.
As for the traps, they are a bit more larger than life than the norm, which makes even less sense when you realize that it is Hoffman (basically the muscle in Jigsaw's operation), not Kramer (the architect), who constructed them this time around. But the over-the-top nature of the violence undermines what should be a sense of empathy for the victims. The best installments (Saw II, Saw III, and Saw VI) put the audience in a position of rooting against the slaughter. Saw VII, with its crowd-pleasing death scenes and gratuitous 3D effects, sells out whatever moral leverage it had for the sake of chunks of flesh flying right at you. There is a brute heartlessness to the carnage this time around, as the film contains far more gore and drawn-out suffering than any prior entry. If ever there was a Saw film that could accurately be accused of being torture porn...
As for the whole 3D gimmick, it is reasonably effective, used in the same fashion as My Bloody Valentine. But the use of video makes this seventh installment look and feel completely different from the previous Saw pictures. The sets are bright, the detail is lacking, and the film feels less like a Saw sequel than the first installment of the direct-to-DVD franchise Saw: the Next Generation. Frankly, save for brief moments of screen time for Bell, Russell, and Mandylor, this feels like a completely disconnected picture. Visually and narratively, the film has next to no real connection to the prior Saw pictures. We learn no new information about John Kramer or anyone else in the Saw universe. For a series that prided itself on convoluted retroactive continuity, there isn't even a barest attempt to make this final entry fit in with the rest. It is shocking that this film was in fact directed (somewhat unwillingly) by the man behind Saw VI, and that it was written by the same people involved in all of the prior sequels.
There is a cheap cruelty to the traps this time around, and an obnoxious misogyny that the series has previously avoided. The opening trap, an exciting change of pace played out in broad daylight in front of a panicked crowd, is marred by the nasty undertones at play (two men must fight for the affections of a woman who dated them both, or team up to let her slowly die). Furthermore, the majority of the victims are young women, and a major female character has nothing more to do than scream and beg for her life for the duration of the last two acts. Worst of all, Jill Tuck spends the entire film as a damsel in distress, hiding in fear of Hoffman before being forced to play out the oldest cliche in the book -- the 'final girl' attempting to elude the monster in the dark.
Saw VII is like the ninth season of Scrubs, a flawed product that extends a series past its perfect finale and undoes much of the goodwill that said finale brought about. Saw VII is an atrociously bad film. But more importantly, it is just the sort of film that people complain about when trashing the series sight-unseen. It is stupid, poorly written and acted, needlessly gory, pointlessly cruel, viciously misogynistic, and just plain boring. In my head, Scrubs officially ended at the conclusion of season 8, and Homicide: Life on the Street ended with the seventh-season finale. In the approved continuity, there is no Saw VII. The series ended on a high note, with dignity and integrity at the conclusion of Saw VI. To those who remember this series with a certain fondness, I'd like to play a game: it's called 'pretend Saw VII never happened'.
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