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Panic in the Year Zero-Two
by Lucius Shepard
April 17, 2002

This is less a movie review than a review of an attitude toward filmmaking espoused by the American motion picture industry (at least by that portion of it responsible for the kind of movies most expressive of said attitude); thus, in order to place this attitude in context, it might be helpful to take a look at the current state of the industry. The entire scheme of taking profits from movies has changed over the past decade or so. Where movies were once designed to play for long runs, generating repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising, the product is now turned out with an eye toward quick marketing strikes, the idea being to hype the film as effectively as possible, score big in the first two weeks, then rely upon good video and DVD sales. This strategy has been dictated, of course, by the decline in the quality of studio films. Very few studio pictures have demonstrated consistent drawing power over the period of a long run--the producers have come to hope for an opening in the 20 million-plus range and to expect a fifty to sixty percent drop-off in the second week. But instead of seeing the peril in such a strategy and changing their ways, the studios have ratified it and now place a greater emphasis upon marketing a film than they do upon crafting it. As a result, six of the eight largest theater chains have filed for bankruptcy, this because the studios take the lion's share of profits for the first two weeks of a run, while the theaters make all their money from concessions and only become partners in profits from tickets sold after the second week. Having belatedly become aware of the foolishness of this type of partnership, the theater owners have recently demanded a share of the opening profits, and this is one of the perils facing the industry.

There are quite a few other serious threats to the dominance of the studios, notably the increasing diversity of entertainment choices and the fact that in the very near future, certain slight advances in technology will enable anyone with a credit card to walk around carrying a movie studio on their back. A further threat is that of napsterization. The studios have demonstrated no sign that they are inclined to set up a distribution system to blunt the effects of downloading movies off the Net, and the losses that will be incurred by the movie business along these lines is going to make what happened to the music business seem minor by comparison. Yet another threat is overproduction. Last year, some thirty-odd feature films were released during the summer season; approximately a third of these films made money. This year, nearly half again as many films will compete during the summer, and it's likely that less than a third of them will make money. The fact that Star Wars: Attack of the Clones is due to open on over 8,000 screens will undoubtedly hurt some films that might otherwise have realized a profit. Films such as Star Wars and Stuart Little have built-in audiences, but the rest are jostling for good positions, and most will be shoved off the raft into an ocean of red ink. Talk to Hollywood people about this ludicrous wastage or any of the aforementioned problems, mention some alternate strategies, and it's like saying to someone, "Do you know that you're bleeding heavily from the neck?", and having them reply, "Yeah, I know," then digging a hole in their wrist. They know it's happening, they're terrified, yet they seem determined to keep going on their lemming-like rush toward the cliff's edge. No studios are currently in dire straits, but this is to some extent illusory. Disney, for instance, would be in danger of imminent collapse if the parent company were not so vast as to be able to swallow the losses endured by its filmmaking division.

Over the past week I have seen three studio movies, an experience I would liken to dining sequentially in three restaurants in a strip mall, businesses that serve up the same basic food substance with the same nutritional value and blandly varying artificial flavorings. A case in point: The Panic Room, David Fincher's (Seven, Fight Club) attempted thriller. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is newly divorced, embittered despite being blessed with a settlement that enables her to buy a Manhattan home that must run to the low eight figures, and the parent of a diabetic pubescent daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). That is all we know about her. The house she buys contains a safe room (panic room) with steel walls, a self-contained ventilation system, video monitors that allow her to see every room in the house, a telephone (not yet hooked up), various supplies, and--unbeknownst to Meg--a floor safe holding millions in bearer bonds left there by the previous owner. On their first night in the house, Sarah and Meg are terrorized by three thieves who are looking for the bonds, led by Junior (Jared Leto), one of the heirs of the former owner, who does not want to share the bonds with the other beneficiaries of his will. Along with Junior is Burnham (Forrest Whittaker), an expert in security systems, and Raoul (a well-disguised Dwight Yoakum), a dangerous thug whom Junior has invited along without Burnham's knowledge. Sarah and Meg seek refuge in the panic room, and for the next ninety minutes or so we watch as the thieves try to extricate them and--eventually--become trapped in the room themselves along with Sarah, while Meg, who during the film turns into McGyver, tries to save her daughter. There are some nifty twists and turns to the script, and Fancher's camera is suitably atmospheric, but it all goes down without involving the audience overly much.

There are several reasons for this. For one, we know so little about Meg and Sarah that--although a helpless mom-daughter combo is a natural for generating audience empathy--we're simply not all that concerned by their plight. Watching Panic Room is rather like watching a news story from a distant country with an orchestral score--we take notice, go, "Hmmm . . . wow. Too bad!" and cast about for something more compelling. In most thrillers, we understand that the hero/heroine will win through. It is the art of the director and cast to make us lose sight of this. This simply doesn't happen in The Panic Room. Though the script (by David Koepp) has its moments, it is weakened by terrible spots of illogic and a number of missed opportunities. We are informed early on that Meg is claustrophobic, but once locked in the panic room, Sarah tells her that she'd better keep it together. And by God, rather than heightening the suspense by having Meg deal with her affliction, Koepp has Meg kick claustrophobia as easily as Liz Taylor might shake off an aspirin habit. Further, as the security expert, Burnham, searches for a way into the panic room, Meg counters him by being able to see everything he does via the video monitoring system. Near the end of the movie, when Meg has the thieves trapped in the room, she sledgehammers the cameras so they won't know what she's doing. This causes Raoul to opine, "Gee, we should have thought of that." Judging by my own reaction and the scattered shouts of "Duh!" from those around me, many of us had thought of it--as would, surely, a security expert such as Burnham.

With the slightest bit of imagination, a dash of care, a smidgen more information about the characters, this might have been an exciting movie. It would have taken such little effort to make the slight changes necessary to improve the product by at least fifty percent, it's difficult to fathom why someone somewhere along the line between principal photography and post-production didn't offer a relevant suggestion or two. One gets the idea that nobody cared enough to bother, that the consensus view was that what they had was good enough to grab a quick buck. And lo, they were right. Panic Room did, indeed, open as the number-one movie in America, bringing in a fast thirty million dollars on its first weekend, only to suffer a substantial second-week drop-off and be replaced at the top of the box-office charts by High Crimes.

Which happens to be the next movie I watched.

Crimes is a trashy military thriller, kind of a needless homage to another awful recent film concerning military injustice, The General's Daughter. It is rife with malefic senior officers and twisted governmental machinations, and features Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Judd, who demonstrated her considerable acting talent in the indie feature Ruby in Paradise, has--since achieving celebrity status--taken a series of eminently forgettable roles, the majority of them women endangered and/or betrayed by men. Here she's betrayed by her husband, who has a secret past that involves a massacre in El Salvador and is being set up years later to take the fall. Being a top-notch lawyer, Judd sets out to defend him, but unfamiliar with the Military Code, she requires a second chair with JAG experience--naturally she turns to a grizzled old discredited alcoholic. Of course she knows (as do we) that the alcoholic's really Morgan Freeman, the ultimately hip gray eminence, who's bound to snatch victory from defeat, etc., etc. We may not be able to predict every twist and turn of plot in the film, but we surely can predict their nature and when they're going to happen. The only reasons to watch this movie are 1) you get paid a decent wage to do so, or 2) your alternative pastime is a visit to the proctologist. Either way, of course, you're taking it up the wazoo, but the movie does cost a bit less.

Following Crimes, I attended Death to Smoochy, a so-called black comedy directed by Danny DeVito, in which Robin Williams, freed of the gooey humanistic roles he has been choosing of late (Jakob Liar, Patch Adams, The Bicentennial Man), proves that even given free rein, his manic humor isn't what it was during his doper days. Without the miracle of modern chemistry, Williams' schtik is about as funny as listening to some old doofus with trembling hands telling you his life story over fifteen cups of coffee at a 12-Step meeting. Edward Norton, who lately seems intent on having us forget his excellent performances in Primal Fear and American History X, co-stars. Frankly, I'd rather not discuss this movie--it's enough of an embarrassment to admit that I actually saw it. My review? Sucked a lot. Any further discussion would be as useless as critiquing Cheez Whiz.

Despite the fact that these films are of different genres, they share with Panic Room a certain lackluster, desultory character, the feeling of comfortable predictability, like a Wendy's Fish Sandwich or a Taco Bell burrito. They do not especially nourish, titillate, or appease, they simply fill a void in a way that neither distinctly satisfies nor dissatisfies. In their attempt to be sufficiently bland so as to please everyone, they please no one--or rather they please only those who do not comprehend that something more palatable is possible. Their emotional charge is essentially neutral, contained within a narrow spectrum. They have no style, just the cinematic equivalent of flavor beads, and they are responsible for cultivating a mass aesthetic that demands only more, not better. Yet even given these base criteria, they are simply not doing the job. Gradually, inexorably, with the steady diminution of quality displayed by such films and the increased diversity of choices available to an entertainment-seeking public, the American audience is splintering into a multiplicity of niches, and though there will always be room for the "event picture," if Hollywood does not recognize that it is time for them once again to make films that explore the medium, that challenge, that appeal to certain niches, that--in a few instances, anyway--reinvigorate the concepts of story and character, then some mighty big heads are soon going to come rolling down Wilshire Boulevard toward the La Brea Tar Pits to join their fellow fossils in sticky black oblivion. As I glance ahead to the summer, I find myself scanning a horribly long list of mediocrities and bloated melodramas, films that begin with some sort of high concept premise and then, those in control apparently feeling that the cool premise is enough to hold an audience, play out in the most predictable and uninspired fashion. Films like Bad Company (Chris Rock, Anthony Hopkins), Changing Lanes (Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson), the aptly titled Murder by Numbers (Sandra Bullock), The Bourne Identity (Matt Damon), Unfaithful (Richard Gere), and dozens of other creaky, formulaic underpowered vehicles without a glint of originality in their design. Trying to differentiate amongst them is like trying to identify cars on the freeway from a mile off. Or, to continue the food metaphor, like trying to decide amongst brands of potato chips. Hollywood's betting that you can't eat just one, but I'm here to tell you (and I admit I usually chump out and say when I spot a new ad, "Hey, that might be pretty good!"), if you eat one, you've eaten 'em all.