This review’s of the TV-14 version of the film. All thoughts below should be addressed as such as a review of the unedited version would be more negative
Jacob’s Ladder is one of those films where you know something is off with the main character from the start and you have to decide exactly what is going on before the film starts to connect the dots. It’s a pretty interesting film with some fun ideas but one that is ultimately held back by the main character who is…sub par to say the least. Get ready for a lot of panicking!
The movie starts with Jacob and his team in Vietnam getting ready for their next mission when some kind of invisible weapon appears to hit them. His allies start having seizures and are seemingly destroyed by sound vibrations. The ones who escape are taken out by bombs and gunfire. Jacob is injured but seemingly lives as we cut to the present where he’s on a train. He must have fallen asleep and missed his stop but he’s seeing some rather odd things and when he leaves the train there is no exit. He’ll have to cross to get to the other side. Everything appears to be rather dim and the colors aren’t of this world. Fortunately he does make it home to his girlfriend Jezebel.
He works a normal job at the post office but his troubles aren’t over just yet. He begins to see more and more odd things like horns growing out of people, strange visions, dreams that keep on going, people that he thought he knew the other day are dead, etc. Jacob will need to get to the bottom of this quickly because there are also people trying to murder him in hit and run attempts but nobody will believe him. Something’s fishy about all of this.
I actually thought the opening scene where Jacob wakes up in the train was the most powerful moment in the entire film. Mainly because it does feel like a dystopian moment from a video game. Everything just feels off from how the train itself looked to the old lady that wouldn’t say anything, to even the color that the camera was using for the shot. It had an elseworlds feel to it and that worked really well. With the movie being called Jacob’s ladder and all, it also made sense that he likely died at Vietnam and was now in some kind of purgatory realm.
Depending on the rules of purgatory that the film would be following, this meant that it would be almost a complete replica of Earth, but with a few added twists to make Jacob’s life a real struggle by the end. The film slowly starts to show what is actually happening by the end of the film and it’s not exactly what I thought based on the opening scene but it was a great way to open things up. Unfortunately the film just couldn’t maintain that level of success.
It slows down a whole lot once Jacob gets back home. I wasn’t nearly as interested in the whole government conspiracy angle for once. I love that stuff ordinarily but I don’t see why Jacob assumes this is from the government. I mean, as the film plays out this does start to get more and more likely but it doesn’t really connect with what he’s seeing. Jacob literally sees people with no face, people growing tails, demonic imagery, horns on people’s heads, etc. How could the government be pulling all of that off?
I think his first guess should have been that something is wrong and he should also be connecting why he can’t remember how the Vietnam mission ended. Shouldn’t that start giving him some different conclusions? Well, no matter how he got to the result, he does make some headway but of course if the government is on this then you can bet that he won’t be able to get far.
My issue with Jacobs is that he’s really not a likable main character. You feel bad for him with all of the nightmares that he constantly has, but he doesn’t help his case either. For one thing, he has dreams where his first wife is alive and of course he starts bashing his new girlfriend and being happy it was all a dream. So does he really like her or is she truly a rebound only because his wife is dead? Seems to me like the film is heavily implying that this is the latter.
My issue with Jacobs here is that he’s perfectly content in either life, whether it be the “real world” or the dream world so no matter who he is married to, he’s cool with it. Seems to me like he’s a very indecisive main character in that respect and on the whole the romance here is extremely weak. Then he just doesn’t seem very grateful to Jezebel considering how much she is helping him out. When he’s sick she quickly runs to the neighbors and gets everyone ready to help him. She puts in a ton of work and never gets any real gratitude from Jacobs.
He’s just too busy sulking or being fixated on the whole conspiracy angle and he should really be including her in all of this instead of pushing her away. If he thinks she may have been replaced with one of the demons then just get out of the area entirely but you can’t be half on the fence and half out of it on something like this. Even by the end I would make the case that Jacobs makes the wrong call in the very final scene.
As mentioned, Jezebel is a solid heroine. She has to put up with a lot from Jacobs but always seems to make the best of it. She is at least trying her best through these tough circumstances and just seems like a likable person. Then you have Louis who is a good chiropractor whose techniques seem extremely painful. He seems to be one of the only guys that Jacob really trusts. Louis seems like a good man though and does help Jacob whenever he is in a pinch.
The final main character here is Michael who shows up out of nowhere to an extent to give all of the revelations on the conspiracy plot. Honestly Jacob got really lucky with this because when he got that random phone call to go meet with him one on one that seemed like a trap under any circumstance. I would even say Jacob wasn’t smart in going there since there’s no way that should have ended well. Jacob doesn’t tend to think ahead like that though.
The film is mainly a psychological thriller as opposed to a physical one but it does tend to get a little violent when we get the Vietnam flashbacks or Jacob’s tough venture in the hospital room. Lets just say that you don’t want to find yourself being operated on my some monsters. I could do without the romance scenes as well and really the film’s biggest drawback is that it didn’t live up to the full potential. Now while the film’s end result is different from what I imagined, it still could have used a little more activity. Cut some of the scenes where Jacob is convinced that he is still in a normal world and keep up the suspenseful atmosphere of the opening scene.
Okay spoilers time. I’m going to discuss what my theory was and then what I think the film went with. It’s a little subjective and open to interpretation but this is what I got out of it. Skip the next three paragraphs if you have not watched the film yet.
So after the opening scene my theory was that Jacob died in Vietnam. His soul was sent to purgatory and he has to hopefully find his way out instead of being dragged to hell. Louis was his guardian angel who went to Purgatory to save him. An unspoken agreement in most purgatory settings is that neither the angels nor demons can tell you that you’re in purgatory and the lead must ultimately come to that revelation by himself. It would explain why the world was so weird and of course Jezebel was one of the demons with the whole party scene. It would have been interesting if the film kept this up as opposed to a more grounded explanation and all of the set up was there.
Now as to what the film actually did. So at the end of the film we learn that Jacob hadn’t actually been dead yet and was just gravely injured. So instead of purgatory it seems like the whole film was just in his mind. It wasn’t so much a battle of angels and demons as it was a battle of Jacob’s will to live and will to die. Presumably the whole government conspiracy about the team getting injected and turning on each other may have been true although I don’t think we can say that for certain. It would explain his flashbacks though and honestly its a better explanation than not having it so I would include that. As to the demon heads and flashbacks, well that could just be the drugs invading his dreams or his soul was sent to purgatory prior to death. The first explanation still works but it’s just a lot messier. Honestly I would just cut out the scene of him dying to show that he was dead the whole time. It’s like the film missed an easy layup there. The plot works perfectly if he was already dead. Him dying at the end…I mean it’s not like it can’t work but it overcomplicates the example more than necessary.
Both sides fighting over a soul when he’s near death is an established concept so it’s not bad per say I just find it far less interesting. Of course by following the kid up the stairs that meant Jacob chose death over life. If he was already dead, it would be him choosing heaven over hell. A much more powerful choice and in that case going up the stairs would be the right choice. In this case, I think life is the right choice so he should have picked that. You could make the case that the choice wouldn’t have been life, but staying in purgatory but my pushback would be that the film showing he had been alive up to that point hints that he would have stayed alive. It’s an interesting scenario to ponder and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of difference in the end. The film just could and should have been a lot more exciting than how it turned out.
Overall, Jacob’s Ladder is a unique film. While the first half destroys the second, I wouldn’t say it completely falls down the stairs. It has to be the first time where a government conspiracy plot wasn’t one of the best parts of the film though. It just feels like filler here and almost unnecessary. I suppose Jacob would have had less to do otherwise but I would have just thrown in some more demons and chase scenes to keep things interesting. If you want to watch effectively a darker version of Inception then this would be the one to pick but I would just say to watch Inception again instead.