February 27, 2009

Echelon Conspiracy

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Echelon Conspiracy

THRILLER:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-02-27

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Shane West, Edward Burns, Ving Rhames, Sergey Gubanov, Martin Sheen, Tamara Feldman, Jonathan Pryce

Director:

Greg Marcks

Screenplay:

Kevin Elders, Michael Nitsberg

Cinematography:

Lorenzo Senatore

Music:

Bobby Tahouri

U.S. Distributor:

After Dark Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Echelon Conspiracy is a more evocative title than a movie this stupid deserves. Once again, Hollywood displays a blatant ignorance of the capabilities of modern computers by providing a "God machine" that seemingly has no limits, except when it comes to the simple things. The storyline hinges on contrivances so exaggerated and circumstances so implausible that it's never possible to take the movie seriously. Yet director Greg Marcks and his screenwriters stumble forward, hoping no one in the audience will take a moment to think about how paper-thin their "conspiracy" is - something that should be evident to anyone whose condition is short of a persistent vegetative state. And, no, I didn't like it any better when it was called Eagle Eye.

Do we as a society rely too much on computers? Perhaps. Could a taut, credible thriller be built around this dependency? Undoubtedly, but Echelon Conspiracy is not it. Marcks' recipe is to combine mistrust of the government with technophobia and a general paranoia about shadow organizations, stir those ingredients in a pot(boiler) with some formulaic chases and shoot-outs, and have all of this brought to life by B-level actors. It's possible to argue that the anticlimax is no less moronic than the rest of the movie, but the ultimate resolution seems like a rip-off of old Star Trek episodes in which Captain Kirk fried computers by using their logic against them.

Max Peterson (Shane West) is a computer security expert whose services in creating password protection software are desired around the world. After finishing a job in Thailand, he receives a mysterious gift of a cutting edge cell phone from an anonymous admirer. Text messages from "unknown" start popping up. The first one advises him to change his flight home. He does, and the plane he was supposed to be on crashes. It is then suggested that he buy a certain stock; its price skyrockets by more than 300%. The text messages send Max to a casino in the Czech Republic and recommend slot machines and blackjack tables where winning is guaranteed. Unfortunately, Max's good luck draws the notice of the casino's security chief, John Reed (Edward Burns), as well as FBI agent Dave Grant (Ving Rhames). Everyone wants to know who's sending the text messages and what they will instruct Max to do next.

It's curious how many recognizable faces the filmmakers recruited for this movie, despite the lack of a genuine A-lister. Although the lead role is played by the relatively anonymous Shane West, who at times seems to be channeling Neil Patrick Harris, nearly everyone else has some kind of resume. In a way I was impressed by Ed Burns' ability to keep a straight face considering some of the dialogue he was saddled with. Then again, perhaps I'm giving him too much credit, since neither his expression nor his tone vary by one iota during the course of the entire movie. Ving Rhames is once again stuck playing the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold part. Jonathan Pryce portrays a mysterious billionaire working behind the scenes. Only Martin Sheen is trying something a little different, playing against type as a hawkish head of the NSA, where he gets to do a little frothing at the mouth. An actress named Tamara Feldman is on hand to provide a little eye candy. However, since Echelon Conspiracy is rated PG-13, that eye candy isn't as tasty as it might otherwise be.

The concept of computer self-awareness is a rich and varied subject that has provided the backbone of countless science fiction stories. (In fact, it's the basis of Battlestar Galactica, arguably the best science fiction program currently on television.) It's insulting and dismaying for such an idea to be reduced to the puerile rubbish that films like Eagle Eye and Echelon Conspiracy have proposed. While it's reasonable to accept a certain degree of the "dumbing down" of complex concepts in the service of an entertaining story, there's little about Echelon Conspiracy that's watchable, let alone enjoyable. Even the action is hackneyed and boring. Perhaps the greatest conundrum left unanswered by this film is that if the government is populated by roster of nincompoops, how did the God Computer come into being in the first place?

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