I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy movie, but this most certainly is not it. One might, at a stretch, hold that there is a daring subtext beneath the glossy fireworks and routine action. But, if there is, it is insufficient to overcome a plot that takes a “dangers of the surveillance state” premise and almost perversely surrenders any of its potency to the most familiar and stale of science fiction trappings.
Eagle Eye’s opening sections suggest it might be angling for a latter day version of Three Days of the Condor; a (relative) everyman thrust into a scenario beyond his control. Director D. J. Caruso, in his second teaming with Shia Le Boeuf following Disturbia, litters his frames with reminders of how scrutinised we are. Surveillance cameras record our every movement, from street corner to cashpoint machine. As Le Boeuf’s Jerry Shaw takes a train journey, a newsreader informs us that the FBI can hear everything you are saying and the only way to curtail their scrutiny is to take the battery out of your phone. It’s a primer for the OTT plot about to kick in, but it seems like a minor detail sat next to the post-Edward Snowden vision of NSA snooping on a global scale.
The problem is, Caruso and his four credited writers have little interest in rooting the ensuing dramatics in the real world. Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, made a decade earlier, was exactly (and self-consciously) the update of ‘70s paranoia movies needed at that time, taking advantage of the advances in technology to create a vision of the US where it is impossible to disappear off the grid without highly evolved faculties. But Eagle Eye finds inspiration in Asimov (All the Troubles of the World) and an earlier picture, Colossus: The Forbin Project. There, a super computer threatens nuclear Armageddon when it applies its unflinching brand of logic to human scenarios. Eagle Eye also borrows from Kubrick in a manner that doesn’t compliment; Aria (Eagle Eye’s super computer) has the womb-like memory banks of Hal 9000, and a soft, sibilant voice to match (that of Julianne Moore). Once a “mad computer run amok” forms the central plank of your tale, it’s going to be a hard graft to apply topical commentary that has any resonance.
Further hindering any thoughts of substance is a plot composed entirely of preamble. Jerry and Rachel (Michelle Monaghan, a rare example of a female lead nearly a decade older than her male co-star) “have been activated” in order to spend 90 minutes on a wild goose chase; Aria’s bonkers cross-country mission is predicated on the view that Jerry requires coercion to comply, so naturally she initiates a scenario where he is death will result if spit-second timing is not followed. It’s this, more than anything, that will put off even the least demanding of viewers (there’s also the rather obtuse device of the “lock” that prevents Aria taking direct action but doesn’t impede her from instigating it). The entire world becomes a message board for Aria to instruct Jerry; on digital signage, on mobile phones, on TV screens. And every device imaginable can be overridden, such that Aria can turn electricity pylons into a potential death-trap (in a scene straight out of Final Destination). This kind of abstract control function has most recently been pursued by the rather banal series Person of Interest, the problem being that, the less immediate the scenario you present, the less potent it becomes. The whole point of a conspiracy thriller is that the paranoid aspects should instill a sense of fearfulness (buying into it wholesale is unnecessary); if you invite only derision, that tension collapses.
And, while Rachel is the best kind of figure in a plot like this (as with Will Smith’s character, she is the innocent out of water, ill-equipped for such spy craft), the integral nature of Jerry to the plot further distances us. The viewer needs to feel “it could be you”. Caruso achieves that only once, when Jerry arrives home to find his apartment filled with boxes of high-grade weaponry, airplane manuals and 1200 gallons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser. It’s the best scene in the movie, where the fear of being the unwitting patsy, a plaything of remorseless powers-that-be, strikes home. The sequence also plays into topical conspiracy theories regarding false flag operations and brainwashed “sleepers” (a phone call comes, informing “activating” the hapless individual, clearly poised to inflict an atrocity on home turf). However, seconds later Caruso retreats to the comfort of sub-Matrix virtual reality; Jerry replays Neo’s brush with authority (both receive instructions from an omniscient force, both ignore them in the first instance and must submit to interrogation).
Some argue that Hollywood, in thrall to the military-industrial complex, operates a trickle effect of information and indoctrination, fictionalising just enough of what’s going on to obfuscate the truth and lend it the distancing of “no that was just in a movie”. Potential outrage is thus diluted, so the theory goes, and with the finite threat of the movie world, order is invariably restored at the end (it was just a faction in the government, one bad apple). That is, unless you’ve taken a trip to the Parallax Corporation. While there’s undoubtedly some truth to the collusion of state and corporate interests in the movie industry (hence armed forces requesting change in scripts before they guarantee free troops and hardware), attempting to produce a one-size-fits-all scenario, given the vagaries of La-La-Land, seems like a hiding to nothing.
Of Aria herself, it has been suggested she is an exemplar of libertarian thinking, antagonistic to big government. I’m not sure the makers are being quite so partisan in their limited critique. Really, Aria seems to be a means to highlight that, to an impersonal observer, the US Constitution is a scrap of paper to be ignored when it suits the nation’s leaders; what would happen if someone did regard it as unbendable, and responded with extreme prejudice to those who did not? In concept she represents a neat device to examine how government inveterately fails to apply first principles; in execution any impact is lost because the device itself is too abstract.
Viewed independently, the indiscriminate information gathering of a surveillance state would logically result in the calling to account and disavowing a (whichever one is in office at the time, essentially) corrupt government. If we could see what are our leaders are up to, and the daily crimes they perpetrate as a matter of course, they would be removed from power in an instant. The central action that causes Aria’s drastic response hinges upon the use of unmanned drones to indiscriminately kill innocent civilians (whom, we are informed, are 51% likely of being bad guys). The employment of which, President Obama has been driving forward with relish during his tenure (of course, his are purportedly legitimate targets). Did the makers think they could insert some serious commentary on the basis that the rest of the picture was sufficiently dismissible and ludicrous? If so, they fell short, since the results neither stack up as a thriller nor as insight. The irony of “big brother” oversight, established to control the populace, turning on its controllers is rather lost amid the carnage.
A few choice quotes are bundled in during the movie, but there is no distinct polemic to be found. When Agent Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton) arrests Jerry he asks him “Who do you think is winning? Your Miranda Rights or my rights to keep you in this room as long as I want to?” It’s a fairly direct critique of the indiscriminate powers of the Patriot Act. In the aftermath, Aria’s demise sees the government battered but unbowed; “We can’t just stop intelligence gathering just because of what happened here”. Defence Secretary Callister (Michael Chiklis), the acceptable and moderate face of a corrupt government, issues a warning that that stands redolent in the current debate over monitoring powers.
Callister: And we can let their sacrifice remind us that sometimes, the very safeguards we put in place for our liberty become threats to liberty itself.
Very sage, I’m sure. The problem is, the movie is 80% a big ball of dumb with those themes nestling far within it. Caruso has assembled a reasonable cast, although Le Bouef has the dubious distinction of being a decent actor but an annoying screen presence. Everyone here is solid, but servicing less than remarkable material; the same with the director. He can handle the scale and the spectacle competently enough, but he’s unable to imbue it with any personality. When a movie emphasises mindless mayhem and grinding clichés (the attempts to imbue the protagonists with emotional backstories are laughable) the way this one does, it should come as little surprise that audiences neglect to embrace its talking points.