If the scenario’s Fritz . . .
Eagle Eye ( M) National release
THE idea behind the new DreamWorks picture, is a good one: can machines control our lives? It was a good idea about 80 years ago when Fritz Lang made his silent masterpiece Metropolis . But Eagle Eye isn’t silent and it’s certainly no masterpiece. It’s the noisiest sci- fi blockbuster I have seen since Transformers . That one, too, starred Shia LaBeouf and basked in the reflected glory of Steven Spielberg, who is once again credited as executive producer.
There is little to suggest that Spielberg had much to do with the making of Eagle Eye , which may be just as well for his reputation. The director is D. J. Caruso, who made last year’s thriller Disturbia , another one with Spielberg’s imprimatur. Eagle Eye is longer than Disturbia , more pretentious, more baffling, more intricate in its plotting, and it has been shot and edited with that hectic, all- too- familiar brand of impressionistic choppiness often used by Hollywood directors to make a silly story unintelligible. Having only recently caught up with The Bourne Ultimatum on DVD, I felt I was watching that film all over again: more shots of people running through buildings, chasing each other along corridors, tapping at computer screens and shouting into mobile phones.
To be fair, Caruso’s opening scenes are pleasantly scary. The US secretary of defence has to decide whether American forces should take out a suspected Muslim terrorist leader somewhere near the Pakistan border. To do so would result in heavy civilian casualties and there is only a low probability ( according to computer analysis) that the suspected target is the man they think he is.
The defence secretary ( a good guy) urges caution, but he’s overruled by the president. The resulting carnage triggers a wave of reprisals and fears of a terrorist strike on US soil, using a powerful new explosive in crystal form that conveniently can be hidden in jewellery.
Next we meet our homespun local heroes. Jerry ( LaBeouf) is a Chicago drifter and college dropout living in the shadow of his identical twin brother, a US Air Force public relations officer. One night, returning to his apartment, Jerry finds it crammed with explosives and terrorist devices, and is warned by an unknown caller on his mobile phone to flee for his life.
Rachel ( Michelle Monaghan) is a single mum. Her eight- year- old son is setting off on a train with his school band to play at a concert in Washington, DC. After a tearful farewell, Rachel takes a call from the same mysterious stranger, who tells her the train will be derailed unless she does as she’s told.
It seems that somewhere in the depths of the Pentagon is a supercomputer that can control everything with unerring precision and judgment: phones, transport systems, power grids, telecommunications ( but not, unfortunately, the writing of Hollywood screenplays). When Rachel passes a McDonald’s restaurant, live images of her unsuspecting son appear on wall- mounted screens. With the FBI in pursuit of Jerry, traffic flows are manipulated to aid his escape ( and we wonder which side the computer is working for). Executions on remote country roads are no problem for our disembodied mastermind, who can bring down high- tension power lines to electrocute an innocent go- between.
Who’d have thought it: a computer going haywire and wreaking havoc? The idea was probably around before computers were invented. ( I remember a scene in Metropolis showing television monitors in a control room before TV was invented, a seemingly brilliant insight by Lang.)
My difficulty with Hollywood’s nightmare scenarios is that they make no distinction between the bizarre and the unbelievable. Eagle Eye may have a serious theme, but the story is so far- fetched that we are tempted to regard electronic surveillance and other big- brotherly threats as no more than the fantasies of screenwriters. When Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation ( 1974), Hollywood’s one truly chilling film about electronic surveillance, the latest weapons in the eavesdroppers’ armoury were tape recorders and walkie- talkies. In today’s world of digital information storage, shared credit records, satellite spies and closedcircuit TV cameras on every corner, Big Brother has moved beyond the realm of science fiction.
Early in Eagle Eye , we see an earnest TV commentator warning audiences that Big Brother is listening, which we can take as heavyhanded irony or a crude signal of the filmmaker’s intentions. So what is the point of Caruso’s film? Essentially, it’s the old mixture — car chases and explosions — dressed up with a dire message. Despite some effort to humanise the characters — Jerry has problems with his dad, Rachel is coping gamely on her own ( why does every Hollywood mum have to be single these days?) — the performances are two- dimensional.
Only Billy Bob Thornton’s hard- pressed FBI agent, who starts out as a mean man and gradually turns into a good guy, gives the cast a touch of distinction.
Five writers are credited, and it shows. There are plenty of ideas, but what’s missing is focus and discipline. And the climax is a blatant pinch from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, right down to the running close- ups of a musical score on which we can see, marked in red, the fatal note that will trigger a calamity. The scene is worth waiting for, if only out of respect for Hitch. Perhaps the best way to see Eagle Eye would be catch the first intriguing half hour, go out for a leisurely coffee, and come back for the last 20 minutes.
Stuck in the middle: Shia LaBeouf tries to flee in Eagle Eye , which opens promisingly but deteriorates into a formulaic mess until its final 20 minutes