If the sce­nario’s Fritz . . .

Ea­gle Eye ( M) Na­tional release

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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