How many “Saws” does that make now? Evidently, even its creators have stopped counting. “Saw 3D” is only the second film in the annual horror franchise I’ve seen (the first being the first), and this alleged “final chapter” assumes working knowledge of Jigsaw canon. My critique, however, is of “Saw 3D” as a stand-alone film, though my gut reaction undoubtedly echoes what you already know—this is a ‘fans only’ affair.
The story of “Saw” fandom is one of diminishing returns. After being decimated at the box office this Halloween and last by the low-budget “Paranormal Activity” films, the series is struggling to stay relevant, or at least to sell tickets on shock-value alone. “Saw” has long since passed that threshold, and the obvious draw this year is the incorporation of 3D. It may seem like a gimmicky application of the technology, but having human entrails hurled into the audience is the logical next-step for the series, and may even be the highlight of this experience.
As it turns out, “Saw 3D” is a lot like “Jackass 3D,” albeit far less entertaining. Both are shameless excuses for elaborate spectacle, be they stunts or traps, and “Saw” excels at creating crass psychological experiments. Unlike “Jackass,” however, it relies on a story to connect the grisly dots, though it really needn’t. We don’t care who these people are; the stars of the movie are Jigsaw’s inventions, and the traps have more of an arc than the characters. So little attention is paid to the audience’s emotional investment in the story that they might as well do away with one entirely. “Saw 3D” is boring and pretentious when it presumes our interest—the series would be better served by taking the “Jackass” route or going all out anthology. Compiling upcoming and established horror directors’ takes on the “Saw” universe in a series of short vignettes could trim the fat considerably.
It would certainly beat the muddled, uninteresting, and expository excuse-making of “Saw 3D.” Morbid curiosity drives the franchise, and that the traps are paramount to the characters they ensnare is readily apparent. Almost immediately, we understand Jigsaw is teaching twisted morality lessons through his sadistic mechanisms—empathy for his victims is thrown immediately out the window. Here, our protagonist is faced with a series of time-based challenges to save the lives of his acquaintances, but fails every time. Who cares? The audience has paid in advance to see them killed.
My qualms with that sentiment are not moral, but creative. What irks me is that the narrative is at odds with viewer expectation when they should be working in tandem. The script should be adding dramatic weight to the gore, but instead it feigns interest in its characters only long enough to brutally murder them. “Saw” needs to either attempt something more emotionally compelling, or not waste my time with its placeholder storytelling.
If this is indeed the final “Saw” film, which seems more likely a function of declining attendance than anything else, my constructive criticism is irrelevant. There are a thousand and one ways the franchise could be improved upon, but “Saw” (judging at least by the first and final installment) is uninterested in adaptation or change. The creativity stops at the carnage, which is unfortunate because the series could be phenomenal in better hands. As it stands, the incorporation of half-hearted 3D is about the extent of its creators’ willingness to innovate. At its best, “Saw 3D” is an appropriately squeamish theater experience—the problem is that it’s otherwise boring.
Not that it matters. As it turns out, “Saw” is like “Jackass” in another way. Fans know exactly what to expect, and can’t much complain about receiving more of same. This many entries in, however, I can’t imagine anyone will be sorry to see it go.