The enjoyable time warp to the '70s plays it safe

By Marc Snetiker
Updated October 19, 2016 at 05:42 PM EDT
Steve Wilkie/FOX

Technically, it’s just a jump to the left, yet it takes so much more to service the unmatched spirit of cinema’s 1975 cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the decades since, the title has lived on as a midnight special, a stage musical, and now a TV remake on Fox, but each iteration demands the same elements: electric participatory energy, a keen understanding of camp and subversive satire, and — at its core — an essence of weirdness.

Most, but not all, of those crucial qualities are on display in Fox’s twist (airing October 20 at 8 p.m. ET) on the film about transvestite aliens with a tendency to time warp. It’s the network’s de facto follow-up to Grease Live!, and the first entry in the booming TV musical revival of post-2013 to opt for a straightforward remake approach rather than a live broadcast.

The decision to movie-ize the event pays off primarily in its showcasing of the production’s vibrant and vivid design, and its allowance of both cast (including headliner Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter and original star Tim Curry as the narrating Criminologist) and director Kenny Ortega the opportunity to finesse their choices. Yet there’s a pervasive feeling that the taped production comes at the cost of a spontaneous live energy which would have best served this manic musical better than any recent network tuner thus far. (And Ortega’s wise decision to frequently nod to the Rocky midnight participation playbook would have helped create a doubly captivating live musical event.)

Still, the remake’s cast is mostly astounding, assembled with care of character over pure star power. Cox is clearly having a ball, with a surprisingly fine voice and affected dialogue that shows she’s at the top of her game. Stand-out Victoria Justice nails the camp of the Susan Sarandon role of ingénue Janet Weiss; her on-screen hubby, Ryan McCartan, is strong in song, if not quite on Justice’s level of underplaying the leading man’s coy archness. Surprisingly, it’s some of the supporting cast — namely, Broadway stars Reeve Carney as Riff Raff and Annaleigh Ashford as Columbia — who are underutilized here, when tradition would suggest otherwise. Adam Lambert and Ben Vereen delight in their fleeting appearances. (Meanwhile, Christina Milian, as the grating Magenta, is unmentioned here for a reason.)

There’s a madness — or at least, a wannabe madness — that runs throughout the film, which bursts with enthusiasm but lacks a truthful impudence. Most cast members (perhaps under Ortega’s helming) seem to be playing nothing more than dress-up in Midtown, having leapt into the theater toy box, pulled out a costume, and assumed that disguises alone can channel the weirdness that must fill in the spaces in Rocky‘s original, irrational text. There’s also a prevalent tonal inconsistency, which is mostly apparent in musical direction; Ortega both wants to offer pure fan service while also lean heavily onto reinvention (e.g. an acoustic intro to “Time Warp” should have been flagged from day one.)

Nevertheless, Rocky is never not fun, and Fox’s musical is far from a wasted visit to the DVR theater. All the elements for a good time are here, and certain moments are downright delightful, but some of these peculiar puzzle pieces lack the shine and polish that should make them shimmer — or, perhaps, they’re so polished that they’ve shaved off the essential rawness that makes Rocky roll. B

RELATED: Rocky Horrorcast on why now is the perfect time to bring the movie back to life!