Friday, January 25, 2008

Untraceable: an outer join of a couple of movie genres

Sony Pictures has several brands that it uses when distributing its films, and I’ve always wondered if there was some kind of real. I don’t know definitively how films get sent out as Columbia, Tri-Star, or Screen Gems. Some of the “genre” horror and thriller films get sent out as Screen Gems, but not all of them. “30 Days of Night” (dir. David Slade) with Josh Hartnett as the appealing sheriff fighting winter solstice ghouls went out as Columbia. And “Arlington Road” (dir. Mark Pellington), a chilling film that eerily anticipates what happened to DC on 9/11 (just a different building) in 1999 went out as Screen Gems. Often Screen Gems seems paired up with Lakeshore Entertainment.

Such is true of Gregory Hoblit ‘s “Untraceable,” a January release (like “Cloverfield” from Paramount) which means that Sony didn’t really think of this as serious Oscar or artistic material. (The movie title does recall M. Night Shyamalan 's "Unbreakable" in 2002 from Touchstone.) A movie like this really can be, “art”, however, depending on how it’s treated, and first-time filmmakers trying their hand on making films about Internet dangers have to reach for art to get into the market. Sony Pictures (and Lakeshore), having the money to throw at this project, probably isn’t hyping the social message publicly as hard as it could. After all, Sony is an “international” company and the premise is troubling for globalization.

This is somewhat of a stereotyped premise as far as the story itself goes (the good old three-act screenplay). A young man (Owen Reilly, played by 21-year-old Joseph Cross, who one hopes gets to be likable in most future movies) is disgruntled and does some horrific things to people on the Internet (via a sophist’s webcam) to “make a statement.” We know the psychology of this well, and need not rehearse the real life tragedies. But what is interesting is how much legal/technical ground the film covers. Here, as the previews indicate, when people log on to his website (just see the movie to get the domain name, hopefully parked and fictitious) the victim on display gets closer to death. That makes voyeurs at home legal accomplices, which is his point. Unless the home (or work) end users actually believe this to be a hoax, yes, these users are committing crimes, too. But the idea that execution of “demand” can be illegal is well known already – consider c.p., or Oliver North’s radio lectures in the 1990s on going after the “demand side” on drugs. The film also makes a point about the illegality of warrantless domestic wiretapping (Patriot Act, etc) when the FBI and local police want to use NSA supercomputers to trace the criminal. At one point, there is a clever comment critical of network neutrality legislation.

There have been other films about punishing voyeurs. A couple are “FearDotCom” (2002, dir. William Malone, Warner Brothers and Sony TriStar both) where visitors of a particularly grisly website meat horrific ends (and to solve the case, the film and detectives literally go into the website). And The Ring (2002, Dreamworks, dir, Gore Verbinski) has watchers of a VHS video meeting horrible ends (followed by an unconvincing sequel in 2005). But there, the voyeurs become the victims of the crime. Well, here, in Untraceable, in a sense they do, too, but now the “voyeurs” are the “abusive” media (an acquaintance once lectured me on “the abuse of the media” back in the 70s) eager for Nielsen ratings.

The film does cover a lot of territory regarding the dangers of hackers, botnets, zombie home computers (that idea raises the speculative idea for a screenplay submission predicated on the idea of a home user’s getting framed – another “Screen Gems/Lakeshore” idea maybe) rotating IP addresses, and spamy Russian servers (global again). I don’t know it if is all correct technically, and the things that Reilly sets up would take more expense and effort than are believable. (In that sense, the film covers ground known in Se7en, The Bone Collector, 8-1/2 MM). And “Live Free or Die Hard” in 2007 (Fox), the most recent film in Bruce Willis’s franchise also covered the dangers of cyber terror (with Justin Long as the attractive geek recruited against his will). "Swordfish" and "Antitrust" are two more examples of films about cyber vulnerability. Movie buffs (and computer security experts) might want to go back to 1995 and review the film “The Net” (Columbia, this time, Irwin Winkler) for plausibility, given all of the stolen identities today. Still another genre direction is illustrated by Screen Gem's slick release "Vacancy" (about hotel video snuff) from 2007. So this new film joins more than one genre. Yup -- that's Screen Gems, a genre company. Also, ION has been showing Artisan's "Fatal Error" (dir. Armand Mastrioanni, novel by Ben Menzrick) in which a computer virus infects people through the eye from computer or web-tv monitors. Former virologist as played by "hunk" Antonio Sabato looks like, well, he has been disinfected and scrubbed to perform surgery.

Untraceable” looks sharp, shot 2.35:1 on location in Portland (which I visited last in 1996) and has vistas that include Mt. Hood. Now we have to mention the hardknuckled performance of Diane Lane as FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh. She looks more grizzled than Scully on "X-Files". And I love her loyal serval-like cat, who helps solve the case (and it’s the kind of cat that you want to jump on you and wake you up in the morning). The story starts with a poor cat as the first victim. Lane has done a lot of promotion for the film – and its ideas about Internet safey – in media appearances.

I wondered about the spelling of the film title -- why the "e" is necessary. Webster does include the "e".

Sony Pictures has created a fake website with the domain name used in the film, here. The site will trigger a pop-up blocker, then a warning about harm to innocent people, and will say 90% of "you" ignored the warming and continued? Where are your morals? (Okay, I knew about Sony's fake site before I visited it.) Then (when you allow popups) it invites you to join the Federal Internet Crimes Task Force with a logon screen. The "real" site does not do what it does in the fictitious film.

Picture: AMC Dupont Circle Theaters closed in Washington DC recently. That area of town does need a modern movie theater; the closest is Landmark downtown, or AMC Georgetown.

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