Trigger Effect, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Trigger Effect, a psychological thriller from David Koepp, opens with an image of coyotes tearing at a dead carcass. An electrical power plant stands in the background. It's a visceral, unsettling scene, and you'd have to be more than a little dense not to figure out that it's a metaphor. Like The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Trigger Effect wants to explore the fine line that divides the civilized man from the inner beast. And, while this film admittedly has its share of problems, it at least does a better job of achieving that goal than this year's adaptation of the H.G. Wells story.

To the extent that The Trigger Effect is intended as a tense, somewhat nerve-wracking thriller, it's adequate, and certainly better than the formula-driven likes of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. First-time director Koepp, working with tips from Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma (Koepp co-wrote Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible, and was able to call on the directors of those films for advice), handles the material smoothly. The flaws lie mainly in the script that writer Koepp gave himself to direct.

The premise is as intriguing as it is timely: what if some freak occurrence caused a massive, perhaps country-wide, blackout? There's no electricity, telephones don't work, and no TV or radio stations are on the air. No one understands what's happening. The authorities don't have answers. With communications out, law and order is breaking down. Looters are being shot on sight. People are buying guns to protect their property and families. The specter of anarchy looms.

Our guides through this nightmarish vision are a typical yuppie couple, Matt (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue). The cracks in their apparently-happy marriage begin showing not long after the lights go out, and the arrival of their longtime friend, Joe (Dermot Mulroney), hastens the erosion. Joe and Matt are supposed to be good buddies, but a current of hostility bubbles just beneath the surface of their relationship, and the volatility of their situation threatens to bring it violently into the open. The danger is further increased when Matt pawns his watch to buy a 12 gauge shotgun. Meanwhile, a mysterious black man named Raymond (Richard T. Jones) keeps having odd, chance encounters with Matt.

The Trigger Effect's most serious problem is that, while the tension is palpable, the setup generating it feels contrived. Once we settle into Koepp's plot, the story is solid enough to keep our interest, but it's difficult to plow through all the artificiality that burdens the film's early scenes. The characters seem like creations of the moment; we have no sense of their history, and we certainly don't like them -- they're irritating and self-centered. It's as if they didn't exist before first appearing on screen. Too much of the interpersonal strife between Matt, Annie, and Joe seems manufactured, and, since it doesn't feel natural, it damages our ability to accept the trio as human beings rather than products of a writer's imagination.

Ultimately, The Trigger Effect is about how people react when driven by desperation, and, to a lesser extent, how humanity has come to rely too heavily on technology. There are times when these themes are hammered home a little too zealously, but, unlike in The Island of Dr. Moreau, we're spared a sermon. Heavy-handed symbolism and obvious metaphors are as far as The Trigger Effect goes.

Once Koepp has brought us through the awkward setup, things improve dramatically. There are a number of compelling sequences, including one where the three main characters, fleeing their California home for Colorado, encounter an armed stranger (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's Michael Rooker) alongside a deserted highway. The series of events started by this meeting force Matt to question his own capacity for violence, and whether there can be any such thing as mutual trust in a chaotic world.

At times, Koepp's vision is almost post-apocalyptic, which gives the film a dark, paranoid edge. The reason for the blackout is never explained, which is probably a good thing -- the film works better with the cause left as a matter of conjecture. Had Koepp fashioned better-rounded characters with a more believable central conflict, The Trigger Effect could have been an outstanding example of high-energy, thought-provoking cinema. However, as it is, it's more intriguing than memorable, and worthwhile only to those with the patience to sit through a dissatisfying and uneven first half-hour.

Trigger Effect, The (United States, 1996)

Director: David Koepp
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Elisabeth Shue, Dermot Mulroney, Richard T. Jones, Bill Smitrovich, Michael Rooker
Screenplay: David Koepp
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1