“The Mothman Prophecies” is about a weird, giant winged being that supposedly appears to selected humans as a portent of coming disaster. It’s obvious the creature is purely mythic: if it actually existed, it would surely have shown up to warn us about this catastrophic movie. Richard Hatem’s script is a total muddle which will prove as frustrating to audiences as “Vanilla Sky.” It might have served for one of the more mediocre episodes of “The X-Files”–those you invariably click off in reruns–but as the basis of a feature film, it’s hopelessly inadequate.
That’s especially unfortunate given that “Prophecies” is directed by Mark Pellington, whose sophomore feature, “Arlington Road” (1999), was a pretty neat little paranoid thriller despite its implausibilities, with canny direction that accentuated its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. Pellington (aided by cinematographer Fred Murphy and editor Brian Berdan) still shows a knack for generating suspense and unease, and even in a chaotic hodgepodge like this his skill is sporadically apparent: there are sequences throughout the film that build a real sense of menace, and the big set-pieces–a car crash, and especially the climactic calamity–are extraordinarily well staged and shot.
But all the helming tricks in the world can’t conceal the messiness of the narrative. Hatem’s script is based on an episode that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the eastern bank of the Ohio River, in 1966-67, and served as the basis for John A. Keel’s non-fiction book of 1975. But the plot is largely fictionalized: the writer has chosen to unfold the story through the eyes of an invented character, a Washington Post reporter named John Klein (Richard Gere), whose wife Mary (Debra Messing) dies shortly after catching a glimpse of the titular prophet of doom (why she should have received such a vision is unclear, as is much else here). Two years later John is magically whisked (in a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of a much better one in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) to Point Pleasant, where he’s drawn into the lives of townsfolk who are having unexplained hallucinations involving both him (or somebody who looks like him) and a creature of the sort his late spouse claimed to have seen, and gets romantically attached to a local cop (Laura Linney). All sorts of odd and threatening incidents follow, presented in an annoyingly fragmentary and disjointed form; having John told by an anguished scholar (Alan Bates) who once researched the “mothman” phenomenon that it can’t be understood rationally isn’t really a satisfying excuse for all the nonsense we have to endure. The plot culminates in a major catastrophe, based on an actual event, which is supposed to tie everything together; but though the sequence is beautifully mounted, it leaves a multitude of loose ends dangling on the screen: the denouement, while spectacular, is ultimately insufficient to salvage what’s preceded it.
The actors seem lost in the debris. Gere looks dour and stunned through most of the picture (as well he might), and Linney, so memorable when graced with the incisive material Kenneth Lonergan gave her in “You Can Count on Me,” is a pallid cipher here. Will Patton does his familiar wild-eyed oddball routine as a tormented townie–the audience can sympathize with his expressions of bewilderment and discontent–while Bates follows in the line of distinguished actors who all too frequently show up in ludicrous stuff like this to lend an air of false gravity to the obligatory role of the eccentric fellow who explains the unbelievable truth to the incredulous hero (it may give him a fat paycheck, but will always serve as a blight on his resume). Messing cuts a glamorous figure as Klein’s unlucky wife, but her efforts are hampered by the puerile necking sequence toward the beginning, intended to show the couple’s deep affection but coming across as forced and silly, and by the soap opera hospital scenes she has to struggle through further on.
All told, the curious episode of the Point Pleasant catastrophe might have served as the basis for an installment of one of those docudrama TV shows that explore unsolved mysteries and supposedly supernatural phenomena, but translated into the fictionalized form it’s been given here, the story seems, paradoxically, both formulaic and incoherent. “The Mothman Prophecies” may eventually be remembered as an unfortunate blip in Mark Pellington’s career, if he’s given the opportunities he deserves; as of now, though, it’s merely the sort of misbegotten mess that studios regularly dump into the January doldrums.