When it was released in 1990, director Adrian Lynne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” was a moderately successful film that grew a cult following; with time, it even influenced other works, including the horror franchise “Silent Hill.” The idea of starring in a remake of a film with such a dedicated fanbase might be daunting for any actor. But it wasn’t for Michael Ealy, who leads director David M. Rosenthal’s reimagining of the 1990 psychological thriller.
“I had zero inhibitions about remaking it because, first of all, while the original film became a cult favorite over time, it wasn’t exactly ‘Jaws’ when it came out, in terms of box office and reviews,” said Ealy. “When I read the script for our version, it was clear that we weren’t doing a shot-for-shot remake or anything even close to that. It felt fresher and I knew it would be more up-to-date in terms of the kinds of things we can now do with visual effects that couldn’t be done back then.”
While the remake borrows the originals thematic elements, it tells a very different story. In the 1990 version, the protagonist (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam veteran whose experiences prior to and during the war result in fragmented flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him as he desperately tries to get to the bottom of it all. In the 2019 remake, the war in the Middle East is the source of trauma, and the story follows two brothers (Ealy and Jesse Williams) instead of a single protagonist.
Ealy plays Jacob Singer, an army medical officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan finally getting his life back together, with a wife (Nicole Beharie), a new baby, and a successful career as surgeon in a VA hospital. Singer believes his brother (Williams) died in the war. But when a stranger informs him that his brother is actually alive and living in an underground shelter with other homeless vets who are addicted to an experimental drug, Jacob’s life starts to unravel.
Because the plots were so dissimilar, Ealy, who has an executive producer credit on the film, said that there had been discussions about changing the title of the film after some early screenings, but he disagreed. “This is the movie that both David Rosenthal and I set out to make — a psychological thriller that is a mindfuck, which is really what the original was,” he said. “We were going for a similar effect and spirit of the original, but not the same storytelling devices.”
He was especially drawn to the opportunity to tell a story with an all-black cast, for a mass audience, in which race wasn’t at all a factor.
“It’s nice to see a movie where the cast may be black, but their blackness is not necessarily woven into the storyline as a plot point or a character,” Ealy said. “The original had nothing to do with being white. Likewise, ours isn’t trying to say anything about race, and it was one reason why we signed up for the movie. We all just wanted to tell a good story about a soldier and his family and the toll that war takes on your family, which is something universal.”