At Quality 16 and Showcase
3 out of 5 stars
It’s unfortunate (but unsurprising) that thrillers about government invasions of privacy always seem topical. Consider that it’s been almost 60 years since the publication of George Orwell’s “1984,” and movie studios are still able to make plausible “Big Brother” films. “Eagle Eye” is the latest example, and while much of the film is certainly close to other movies of its kind, it still maintains a sleek presentation and an eerie, this-could-happen-to-you vibe.
Early on, a newswoman helpfully explains that the government has now developed the ability to make everyone’s cell phones function as microphones for listening in on people’s conversations. The new microphone technology works even when the phones are turned off, which doesn’t seem to provoke as much outrage as one might think. None of this makes a lick of sense, but in a movie like this it’s easy to just go with the ridiculousness.
Enter Jerry Shaw, a college dropout who comes home one day to find he’s been framed for a major terrorist attack. Jerry is played by Shia LaBeouf (“Transformers”), who has reached an awkward stage in his career where he looks too old to play teenagers and too young to play independent adults. He’s forced to go on the run from federal agent Thomas Morgan, played by a scary, intense Billy Bob Thornton (“Mr. Woodcock”).
The plot hook is that Jerry keeps receiving instructions from every piece of technology around him, including TV screens, strangers’ cell phones and GPS navigation systems. He meets up with pretty single mother Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan, “Made of Honor”), who has also been contacted anonymously through the same method and must do as she is told or her son will die. The nature of their predicament makes the pair resemble unwitting servants rather than protagonists, since they’re rarely offered an opportunity to deviate from their given instructions. Much of the fun comes when they attempt to break from the rules and their environment turns against them. At one point, Jerry intentionally boards the wrong subway car, which immediately halts in its tracks and reverses directon.
While the whole movie is essentially one extended chase sequence, the first half does a much better job of maintaining suspense and freshness. The imaginative mark of executive producer Steven Spielberg can be seen in such techno-trippy moments as the sight of a news ticker commanding Jerry to jump off a tall building. In many ways this resembles the early scenes from “The Matrix” — the good parts — when Keanu Reeves discovers that an unseen source has the power to manipulate every aspect of his environment.
Eventually the source of all the commotion (spoiler alert) turns out to be a rogue government supercomputer named Aria. Somehow, it has managed to develop a power-hungry personality and a finely honed sense of sarcasm. It’s easy to see how Aria was “inspired” by HAL 9000 from “2001,” and it cribs from many other films, too — in particular, the computer itself resembles the spaceship from Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Why does the CIA need a machine this powerful? The computer even controls their own building, forcing the agents to maneuver awkwardly behind closed doors to avoid being overheard. Seems like an obvious design flaw. Or, as it’s known in the movies, a plot hole.
“Eagle Eye” isn’t a particularly revolutionary thriller, and its message of the dangers of government surveillance has already been done to death by other, better films like “Minority Report” and even “The Dark Knight.” Still, for all its ludicrousness, director D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia”) definitely knows his way around an action scene. The movie is stylish and mostly effective, and there’s definitely an odd pleasure to be gained from the sight of Shia LaBeouf screaming into his cell phone.