The newest thriller from J.J Abrams protégés Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (“Transformers,” “Fringe”) and journeyman director D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia”), “Eagle Eye” is textbook high concept filmmaking. Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) is a twenty-something slacker (Hollywood’s favorite version of the everyman’ for at least fifteen years) who suddenly finds a great deal of money in his bank account, an even greater amount of weapons and explosives in his apartment, and a strange voice on his phone telling him to obey its instructions or else.
As premises go, it’s pretty good, shallowly plot-oriented sure, but interesting enough to want to see where it goes. Unfortunately, it’s also interesting enough to actually get the movie made, which usually means none of the rest of the story gets as much thought put into it. “Eagle Eye” is pretty textbook about that, too.
Jerry soon finds himself on the run from the FBI, transformed into an ad hoc secret agent by the voice on the phone. He’s helped as he goes along by an unlikely cell of every day people in the same situation as himself, including single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), whose son has also been threatened by the mysterious voice on the phone. It’s the voice that the movies really about, a kind of aural stand-in for the dreaded powers that be’ that can assume control of your life in a heartbeat without giving you any say in the matter.
Jerry is the kind of person who has dodged responsibility his entire life, always choosing easy over difficult, only to find he’s had that choice suddenly taken away from him. LaBeouf’s been playing these kinds of laid back, fast-talking characters since he was an adolescent on the Disney Channel, and he has a tendency to fall back into that pattern often. It’s too bad, because every once in a while he will actually do some acting instead of just role-playing. Most of the rest of the cast has the same problem though, which isn’t entirely their fault. They do the best they can with what’s been written, but when it’s mostly exposition, there’s not a lot to grab onto. Rosario Dawson tends to get the worst of that stick as the Air Force investigator tracking Jerry down. Only Billy Bob Thornton’s FBI agent is able to rise above the morass, mainly due to Thornton’s experience as an actor. It should be a clue to how much exposition they’re ramming down people’s throats, they needed two different detectives doing two different things to get through it all.
Movies like “Eagle Eye” aren’t normally that interested in character development; they’re interested in set pieces and keeping their audience on the edge of their seat. It’s to LaBeouf and the filmmakers’ credit that the climax is well keyed in on Jerry as a character, as he finally chooses to take responsibility for his life, to do something.’ It’s better than I was expecting by that point frankly. Unfortunately, it was also too little, too late.
Films like this are ultimately all about, and only about, their plot and the plot for “Eagle Eye” is quite bad. Personally, I have a really hard time with any story starting with all of the electronic devices of the world from computer-controlled cranes to traffic cameras being taken over by one central authority. With just a little bit of thought, it’s almost too impossible to suspend disbelief. To be fair, any story really only has to be internally consistent, not realistic. The electronic Big Brother routine is just the current magic wand for plot points (and to try and disguise authorial deus ex machina) because it’s frequently in the air today but still vaguely understood enough that it can be easily rationalized. It’s the same purpose electricity served at the turn of the century, or radiation in the fifties, turning people into giants or making them invisible instead of just killing them horribly. On the other hand, I always had trouble believing in those giant ants, too.
But that wouldn’t be a deal breaker if the writers–all four of them–didn’t insist on taking the lazy way out of every situation. Orci and Kurtzman writing style has always been heavily MacGuffin-based. They tend to exposit endlessly over whatever object their plot is revolving around rather than have anyone ever say anything meaningful, like what they think and feel about said object. Like a bad pop song, the hook is everything, and the rest of the story can go hang.
It’s not a surprise then that the first film from their production company has the same problem. The writers seem to have spent all their time coming up with the various plot objects and teasing the audience with what they might be in their constant pursuit to keep people hooked, but without actually deciding for themselves what the objects are until they have to. The worst offender is a case Jerry and Rachel are forced to cart around for half the film. By the time the contents are revealed, the filmmakers seem to hope the audience is so caught up in the race to the finish that they don’t stop to think about it, or else they’ll realize the entire case and most of what has happened for the previous hour was a pointless digression used merely to eat up the clock.
Almost as bad is the revelation of who the voice on the phone actually is. I won’t ruin it, but attentive viewers should figure it out in about 25 minutes, then spend the next half hour hoping they’re wrong only to find out — at the halfway mark when the whole plot is explained — that it was unfortunately exactly what they thought it was. I don’t particularly mind that kind of predictability even when it’s supposed to be a twist; a lot of that’s just a side effect of seeing so many movies. I do mind if it’s stupid.
“Eagle Eye” isn’t awful, just trite. There are two particularly silly but fun set pieces dealing with Jerry’s escape from the FBI and a rogue Predator drone. They’re not exactly worth the price of admission, but they keep it from being a total bust. Ultimately though, it suffers from the same problem most high concept films have; it’s all smoke, but not enough fire.