De Palma’s lean Stephen King adaptation starring Sissy Spacek in the iconic title role was equal parts stylish and sleazy, mixing exploitative elements with bold cinematic technique in a way that only movies from the ’70s could get away with.
The answer, from the standpoint of box office receipts, is to take a property that has entered the pop culture mainstream and update it modern CGI special effects. Director Kimberly Peirce does more than simply add scenes of Carrie’s telekinetic destruction, although one key character modification on the part of the new Carrie White, Chloë Grace Moretz, lessens their eventual effect. As convincing as Moretz is, the remake serves to make one appreciate the amount of subtlety and empathy Spacek brought to the role originally.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s updated screenplay lifts so much from Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 script that Cohen is also credited as screenwriter. The story still revolves around an outcast teenager who is ridiculed by her classmates in the vulnerable environment of the girls locker room. The fact that she’s experiencing her first period without any prior knowledge of what it means is terrifying enough, but when a video of the episode gets uploaded to YouTube, she becomes the pariah of the school.
Like most modern remakes, few of the character motivations remain ambiguous. It isn’t a deal-killer, but the script fills in too many of the blanks of the original with clearly drawn lines that lessen the film’s visceral impact.
Carrie’s mother, a psychotic religious fanatic (now sporting a cutting disorder), is played by Julianne Moore with a dash of self-doubt that was missing from Piper Laurie’s campy portrayal. Moore rounds out the character more believably, but an attempt to give her easy psychological motivation makes her less compelling.
Peirce isn’t as concerned with teenage promiscuity and the casual cruelty of adolescence as De Palma was. These things are a normal fact of life for kids today, so having sex in the back of a car isn’t that big of a deal. Rather than play out this teenage nightmare as a Grand Guignol psychosexual soap opera with lots of slow motion and spinning camera tricks, Peirce keeps Carrie grounded in a familiar modern reality. This makes plain-jane Carrie and her mother — who appear not to recognize that the last 35 years even happened — stick out even more, and it makes the allegory about blooming womanhood less important.
Carrie understands the natural desire of an audience to want to see revenge acted out on bullies, and is content to be what is essentially a superhero origin story — albeit one that goes wrong. It’s strange that it doesn’t take more pains to take advantage of this natural corollary; in fact, no one ever utters the word “bullying” at all.
It’s still a slow build toward the inevitable prom night carnage, but Carrie becomes aware of the degree of her powers and learns to control them too early, so much of the suspense of how they will manifest is gone. This is to be expected, since modern audiences demand more frequent action, but Spacek’s Carrie was scary because she didn’t understand where her powers came from or what she was capable of. Her swath of destruction didn’t differentiate between her actual targets and collateral damage — it was based on pure unabated fury. Miraculously, Spacek somehow seemed remorseful at the same time.
Moretz’s Carrie wields her power with more control, like Magneto destroying a suspension bridge, and the movie isn’t any better for it.