Maybe Saw 3D was inevitably going to be a disappointment. It's the final instalment, and so needs to wrap up the entire franchise in a satisfying way, while showcasing plenty of new and elaborate traps ... and it's in 3D. It's a lot to pack into one movie, and ultimately, it doesn't really work. Which is such a shame, because there are parts of it that are really promising, but it just doesn't quite deliver.
The main problem is that it introduces too many new elements when, really, it needed to spend its time and effort tying up existing loose ends. We open on a trap, but a trap unlike any we've ever seen before: instead of being hidden away in a grimy basement somewhere, this trap is in a shop window, on a busy street, in broad daylight. Two men are chained to a workbench with three circular saw blades on it, and suspended above them is a woman: apparently she'd been cheating on one of them with the other, or something, it's not quite clear. Billy the puppet tricycles in to tell them that only two of them can possibly escape this trap: either they push the saws all to one side and murder one of the men, or they leave them in the middle, and let the woman perish. There's something particularly ugly about this trap, a hint of misogyny that hadn't really been present in the franchise before. But what's worse about this trap is that it doesn't tie into the rest of the film at all. Is this the work of John, or Hoffman? Who are these people, and why are they relevant? At what point in time is this happening? It doesn't matter, as it turns out. Not even slightly. So let's forget about that and get on with the story.
At the end of Saw VI, we saw Jill carry out John's final instructions by putting the reverse bear trap on Hoffman's head and locking him in a room, supposedly to perish without a hope of survival. But Hoffman did survive, albeit with a nasty facial wound. Saw 3D picks up from there, with a panicked Jill fleeing the scene as Hoffman chases her down. There's an obvious Halloween reference in this sequence, and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Hoffman's storyline. He's become a stalk'n'slash killer, a Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees character, walking slowly but inevitably towards his victims ... and killing them with a knife. There's none of Jigsaw's characteristic twisted morality to this: Hoffman's on a killing spree, and there's no subtlety to his methods at all.
While the previous films were complex, this one's just messy. There are at least two new stories running simultaneously here: there's a police plot, where Hoffman takes his revenge on Gibson, an internal affairs officer who previously turned Hoffman in for brutality, and there's a maze trap, where fake Jigsaw "survivor" Bobby Dagen must try to rescue his publicity team and his wife by actually going through some of the things he's become famous for claiming to. This trap's actually quite clever, but it's overly elaborate: Dagen is being punished for lying, for turning himself into a celebrity by pretending to have overcome a Jigsaw trap, and so the various stages in his maze are labelled with the steps from his self-help book, S.U.R.V.I.V.E. (Start your live anew, understand your problems, redefine your priorities, verify your self-worth through commitment, ignore your detractors, value your loved ones, and embrace every day as if it were your last.) That's further complicated by the addition of the themes of the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. And while Hoffman's trying to force Gibson to hand over Jill, he's also setting up some elaborate traps at various significant locations from his own past. There's a hell of a lot going on here.
The twist that slightly unravels some of this tangle is that there's yet another Jigsaw accomplice to be unmasked: and, if you've seen any of the publicity for this movie, this is hardly a spoiler. It's Dr Lawrence Gordon. After he dragged himself out of the bathroom at the end of the first movie, Jigsaw took him in, built him a prosthetic foot, and brought him into the rapidly growing cult of Jigsaw. So all those incredibly intricate, surgical elements in many of the previous traps? That was Gordon's work. I'd like this twist a lot more if I didn't know Cary Elwes was returning; it would've been excellent if we hadn't seen him until right at the end, but he's been way too prominent in the publicity campaign for this twist to hold any real shock value.
So, while Gordon's running a trap for Dagen, Hoffman's leading Gibson around by the nose, and Jill is ... mostly just running away from Hoffman. Saw 3D commits one of the most obnoxious cinematic tricks when it gives us a dream sequence fakeout: while all of the previous films have tried to mislead and trick the audience in various ways, none of them have done it in such an obvious, clichéd and tired way. (Plus, in the dream sequence Jill is inexplicably wearing very little clothing, and an awful lot of lip gloss: really, guys? Really?) I think I just expected more.
There are lots of opportunities to do interesting things in this movie: Dagen's support groups for Jigsaw survivors are the perfect opportunity to give fans a little continuity porn by bringing back everyone who'd previously survived a trap, and while there were a couple of familiar faces back (Tara, Addy and Simone from Saw VI, and Mallick from Saw V), there was also a completely new trap and survivor thrown into the mix, which ... what? When was that supposed to have happened? It would've been better to stick to existing survivors, as few of them as there are. And the trailers for Saw 3D hinted that the audience would be implicated this time, which was really the only way to make sense of the opening trap. I expected some element of accusation - an invitation to consider what's wrong with me, personally, that I want to watch these movies? - but there was nothing.
Another major issue with Saw 3D is the relative lack of Tobin Bell. I know. John Kramer's been dead since Saw III, so continually bringing him back is getting a little tired. But we only got two new scenes with him this time round, and the film really suffered from his absence. Saw 3D focuses on Hoffman, a relative newcomer to the mythos, and all the new characters, even sidelining Jill Tuck in favour of bloody Gibson. (Chad Donella is my new least favourite Saw actor. He's terrible.) Jill's been lurking in the background for three movies now, and this was the filmmakers' last chance to really do something interesting with her, but they didn't. After their rehabilitation of Amanda in Saw VI, I really had faith that they'd give us some much needed insight into Jill, but sadly not.
I'm being overly negative now, I know. Saw 3D isn't terrible (it's certainly not as gutwrenchingly awful as Hostel Part II; it's more disappointing in the way that The Wire season 5 is disappointing). It's entertaining enough: it's camp, occasionally funny, and frequently disgusting. It's watchable. It's just not the high note I thought the franchise was going to go out on. This week has been an interesting experiment, though, and even taking the disappointing final instalment into account, I still hold the Saw franchise in far higher regard than I did even a week ago. I'm especially excited to see what creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell will do next.