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There is no expiration date for a great sequel. If there's a smart, interesting story to be told that builds upon an established world and narrative, then it doesn't matter how many years have passed in the real world since the last chapter was released. Hell, sometimes it even works to the project's advantage, as that extended period can be the result of a "look before you leap" philosophy and smart planning. This, of course, is the ideal... but it's not what audiences are getting with director F. Javier Gutierrez's Rings. Instead, it feels like a forced years-later retread with a paper-thin plot, and no real scares to speak of.
Based on a screenplay that went from the hands of David Loucka and Jacob Aaron Estesto before being redrafted by Akiva Goldsman, the movie picks up 13 years after the events of The Ring Two -- but that's not incredibly relevant given that none of the main characters have any connection to the original cast. The notorious cursed tape winds up in the hands of an Icarus-esque professor (Johnny Galecki), whose wax wings are lack of morals and scientific method, and he propagates screenings to his students as a study in the name of getting closer to the afterlife.
One of these students is Holt (Alex Roe), whose characterization pretty much extends solely to his relationship with his long-distance girlfriend, protagonist Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) -- but it's fair game since her characterization doesn't go beyond her relationship to him. When Holt stops answering phone calls and texts, Julia drives to his campus to figure out what's going on, and after a few hours of amateur sleuthing she uncovers the aforementioned professor's study. In order to save her boyfriend, she copies Holt's video and watches it herself -- only to discover that her version has more footage than what's seen before. This revelation sends the kids down a familiar rabbit hole, traveling to the burial site of Samara Morgan (Bonnie Morgan) and uncovering some secrets and horrible history.
As far as "world-building" goes, Rings deserves some bonus points, as it does turn over some stones left unturned by the first two movies -- but the problem is that it doesn't actually do it in any kind of logical or interesting way. Despite the fact that seemingly dozens of students are being exposed to The Tape, Julia is the only one privy to the vision-inducing bonus footage, but there is zero reason given for this being the case (this is where I'd point to any potential evidence, but we learn so little about her in the film that it's impossible to pinpoint anything). Even the dramatic ticking clock element inherent to the mythology of the series ("Seven days") is completely lost on the film, as the audience is never given any clear indication of how much time is passing, and no character ever references it.
Despite the effective atmosphere, F. Javier Gutierrez echoing cinematography and effects of predecessor Gore Verbinski, Rings is also depressingly without any of the scares of the original -- with even the jump scares being entirely telegraphed and set-up to death. The truly disturbing moments come when we see the bodies that Samara leaves behind after heading back to her well -- and the designs are legitimately amazing -- but we never get a glimpse at them more than a few frames long, and they come few and far between (a side effect of a killer who takes a full week to take down her victims). Ultimately what audiences are really offered is a flimsy mystery answering questions nobody really asked with the occasional fright that will inspire more people to look at their watch than to scream.
The financial success of both The Ring and The Ring Two -- not to mention the original Japanese franchise -- always suggested that the series would find a way to come back, but those hoping to get a movie more like the first than the second are going to be left sorely frustrated. It's admittedly not exactly surprising, but it is unfortunate.