Arts & Culture
11:53 am
Wed April 3, 2002

Panic Room

Director David Fincher's new movie, starring Jodie Foster, is a thriller about an unsafe armor-plated home.

Providence, RI –

The public?s hunger for a good chill that doesn?t involve terrorists or anthrax probably explains why the just-released ?Panic Room? set a new Easter weekend box office record. And if anyone should have been able to give it to them, it?s the film?s director, David Fincher.

Thus far, Fincher?s built his career on generating an atmosphere of dread. His first feature, ?Alien 3,? is the most brooding and visually stylish of the series, though criticized for being too dark and philosophical. Fincher hit his stride with ?Seven,? perhaps the bleakest and most perverse of a string of serial killer movies in the 90s. ?The Game? is a paranoid roller coaster ride. The nihilism and millennialist twist of ?Fight Club? lingers with you long after the movie is over.

?Panic Room? has much of what we might look for in a Fincher movie: a creepy air of foreboding, an insinuating sense of claustrophobia and, well, panic. But David Koepp?s screenplay hamstrings Fincher, not allowing him to fully exercise his visual flair and corrosive sensibility.

Koepp is a practitioner of the ?high concept? movies that can be summed up in a sentence and that make for a good poster (?Jurassic Park,? ?The Lost World,? ?Mission: Impossible? and the upcoming ?Spider-Man? are among his credits). These are screenplays that hew religiously to the models offered in books by the likes of screenwriting guru Syd Field, or are taught in the big Los Angeles screenwriting programs. And program is the operative word here, since ?Panic Room? follows a very programmatic path.

The set-up is quick and blunt. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) has been jilted by her rich husband. She buys a pricey New York brownstone, once owned by a wealthy invalid, and moves in with her diabetic daughter (Kristen Stewart). The house contains a panic room -- a miniature fortress off the master bedroom to be used in case of a disaster or a home invasion. Three hapless home invaders, led by Forest Whitaker, break into the house to recover the former owner?s hidden fortune.

There?s nothing new or particularly original here. Koepp has taken a fairly standard woman-in-jeopardy plot and gussied it up with a few high tech gewgaws and contemporary twists. The film plays out in a predictable fashion. We know the daughter?s diabetes will become a plot point, we know the electric eyes that keep the panic room?s steel door from crushing anything in its path will fail, and we know the resourceful Meg will ultimately triumph. The exposition is so obvious that it might just as easily have been provided in a scroll or a voice-over.

It?s to Fincher?s credit that, despite Koepp?s by-the-book screenplay, he still manages to invest the film with a reasonable degree of suspense. Even if the road is familiar, the director takes the curves with enough speed and enough skill to get the adrenaline pumping. The camerawork, gliding from floor to floor and room to room, is arresting at times. And the opening credits, suspended like architectural elements around New York City, are gorgeous. Foster?s bird-like intensity is well showcased here and Stewart holds a great deal of promise. The villainous trio (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) is paper-thin but energetic.

?Panic Room? could have been a far more interesting rumination about how one?s home is no longer a sanctuary. E-mail, the Internet, and cable have made our home just another extension of work, a place where the outside world intrudes all too effortlessly.

As it is, ?Panic Room? is a serviceable thriller with a lack of consequence that is uncharacteristic of Fincher?s other films. Of course, having a bona fide box office hit may allow the director to continue to pursue his singularly grim and distinctive vision in smaller films that aren?t burdened with the low expectations of the high concept.

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