It is rare that a film spends such a large chunk of its running time basically admonishing its own existence. Yet Wes Craven's return to the world of Scream is not only a relatively unnecessary franchise revival, it wears its uselessness on its sleeve. Call it 'meta' or call it a genuine distaste for those who would demand a fourth installment of this particular series, but Scream 4 shouts early and often about the myriad of ways in which it rips itself off. While it delivers the bare essentials (violent murders, copious blood, pretty people being stalked), it becomes, due to a lack of emotional potency and an unwillingness to take itself particularly seriously, a pale imitation of not only itself, but of those that ripped it off over the last fifteen years. Scream 4 is like a the last couple Michael Jackson albums: it's disheartening seeing the franchise that reinvented the wheel merely doing what its successors did, but at an inferior level.
There really is no plot per-se to the fourth Scream film. Sydney Prescott (Nev Campbell) has returned to Woodsburo for the first time in ten years. She's in town to promote her memoirs, which is part self-help book, part testimonial. Since she's stupid enough to visit her hometown ten years to the day of the original Loomis/Macher massacre, the people of Woodsburo start dying right off the bat. As Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) attempts to solve the new mystery, Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox) sees an opportunity to regain her former journalistic glory. Meanwhile, the various young teens at Woodsburo high basically... well, they don't do much other than occasionally discuss the 'new rules' and plan their annual Stab-a-thon, in which they screen all seven of the Stab films.
On the plus side, unlike the scared-of-its-own-shadow Scream 3, Scream 4 is quite violent and bloody, with a slightly higher body count than the sequels and about as much gore as Scream 2. But with one or two exceptions, the violent murders are unimaginative and visually boring. And the entire picture is so self-referentially jokey that it casts a pall of irreverence over the whole proceedings. Yes, I've long complained about the overly campy tone of the first Scream, but was at least partially due to a story structure in which most of the young leads didn't realize that a killing spree was occurring until right at the climax. Here we have a picture in which one member of a close-knit group of friends is murdered pretty quickly (in arguably the most compelling death of the film), yet most of those friends barely stop to acknowledge said passing.
This isn't the Wes Craven who takes his violence seriously and makes you mourn the dead. Nor is this even the Wes Craven who attempts to scare you in any real way, since the film is almost completely lacking in tension or suspense. It is telling that one of the bigger jump scares in the film comes from a scene from the first Stab as its being projected on a barn door. All three of the original trio struggle to get back into character. Arquette feels off a step and Courtney Cox often falls into self-impression (IE - she feels like someone else 'doing' Gale Weathers). Nev Campell spends a good 70% of the film in the kitchen of her cousin's (Emma Roberts) house making tea.
As for the new kids, the film struggles to give them much to do. Since we have the Sydney/Gale/Dewey scenes, the various scenes of violence, and a needless subplot involving a young deputy (Marley Shelton) who is attempting to woo Dewey away from his wife, the new kids struggle to make an impression. While certain characters do get a big scene or two at the end of the film (no spoilers, although it's pretty obvious from pretty early on), the new kids basically fall into their one-sentence character description. Emma Roberts is Sydney's cousin, Hayden Panettiere is the hot film nerd, Rory Culkin is the film-club president, and Erik Knudsen is the resident 'I film everything because I'm all about new media' web head. Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody have one great moment where they discuss the mortality rate of movie cops and Alison Bree sure is terrific and adorable on Community. Many of these people will die, and you probably won't feel a thing when they do.
Much of the film's would-be inside baseball involves the last ten years of Asian remakes, 70s/80s revamps, and would-be torture porn (surely Wes Craven knows enough about being demonized not to use that absurd label). The opening scene (which is admittedly kinda brilliant in its gamesmanship) takes a shot at the Saw franchise for lacking character development, but then proceeds to deliver a film with absolutely none whatsoever. There is a climactic bit about the absurd number of horror remakes over the last several years, while ignoring the fact that any number of those remakes (Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dark Water, etc) are far superior films to Scream 4.
Despite the references to 'torture porn' and Asian remakes, the film makes no real effort to incorporate these genres into the narrative. What would a killing spree modeled after Scream but theoretically committed by someone who grew up watching The Ring or Saw look like? Scream 4 doesn't even try to explore this idea, as the Ghostface killings are every bit as bland as the killings in Scream 3. The whole remake/reboot trend is the prime target, as much of the current killing spree may or may not be someone trying to 'remake' the original murders. While Craven and Kevin Williamson may indeed be taking aim at a generation so raised on revamps that they lack the capacity for original thought, the film becomes a prime example of the very disease that it's diagnosing. Pointing out that your movie is lazy and unoriginal doesn't let you off the hook for making a lazy and unoriginal movie. It is every bit as visually uninspired and derivative as those that theoretically deserve Craven's scorn.
The picture makes a less-minute attempt at criticizing the instant-gratification/instant-celebrity culture that has made failure (think Rebecca Black or Charlie Sheen) into the new success, but it's too little too late and fails to honestly confront whether Sydney is an example of said phenomenon (she's of course famous only because people tried to kill her a decade ago). Worse than that, it finds a perfect pitch-black ending but then proceeds to go on for a needless final scene that brings nothing but tedium. Even the characters admit that it's pointless, but that again doesn't excuse its momentum-sapping inclusion.
Scream 4 is a pinpoint example of the very things it pertains to criticize, yet it hopes that its open acknowledgment of its own vices is enough to excuse itself. It is a tired and lazy reboot that criticizes reboots and a needless cash-grab that criticizes cash-grabs. It's a desperate rip-off that criticizes rip-offs while failing to acknowledge that it fails to even match the audience-investment of I Know What You Did Last Summer, let alone the clever and emotionally-draining Final Destination. Sure, it's better than The Final Destination 3D and/or the newer variations on A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, but that's a pretty low standard. The Scream franchise rewrote the rules of the slasher genre, but now it halfheartedly follows in the footsteps of its alleged inferiors, hoping to earn points purely for pointing out how lame it is.