I feel about Eagle Eye the way a lot of people felt about Cloverfield. After seeing an arresting preview that showcased the movie's irresistible premise (young guy's very existence depends on following instructions from a mysterious voice on his cell phone), I was psyched to see the whole thing. The problem is that the premise works brilliantly in a two-minute trailer; stretching it out to feature length is more problematic. After a strong start, Eagle Eye starts to show the strain, and we're ultimately left with something that doesn't satisfy.
Shia LeBeouf stars as Jerry Shaw, a slacker who works in a copy shop and enjoys the occasional game of poker with his buddies. Jerry comes home to his dingy apartment one night and discovers that someone has sent him a truckload of suspicious materials: semi-automatic weapons, bomb parts, etc. His cell phone rings. A woman's voice is on the other end, telling him that the FBI will be raiding his apartment in 30 seconds and he needs to flee immediately. Naturally, Jerry doesn't heed the warning. The feds bust in, find the stuff, and brand him a suspected terrorist.
Using messages sent via cell phones, computers, and other electronic gizmos, the strange voice helps him escape the clutches of the feds, and brings him together with a single mother named Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), who has been receiving similar calls. The voice has told Rachel that her son will be killed if she does not follow all instructions. She and Jerry realize that someone is watching their every move, but also pulling strings to prevent them from being caught by an FBI agent named Tom Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton). As they carry out the demands of the mystery voice, they also try to figure out why they've been "activated for duty."
In the interest of preserving whatever surprise there might be, I should refrain from saying anything more, other than to point out that Eagle Eye is a Patriot Act-skewering thriller that suggests hidden dangers in allowing the government to track its citizens anytime, anywhere, via any means possible. The early scenes admittedly have a nervous, conspiracy theory intensity. The voice on the other end of Jerry's phone won't let him get away. He can't take a single step without being watched or somehow coerced into following orders. Whoever is controlling things almost seems to know what's going to happen before it really does.
There is a moment in this story that sent a chill up my spine. Jerry is confronted with a lifetime of personal information stored on computers: the videos he's rented, his traffic citations, even an old home movie that someone uploaded on Facebook. For just a minute there, I was jarred by the thought that so many of us put seemingly innocuous information onto the internet, not realizing that a million bits of innocuousness can add up to a rather astute psychological portrait. When it's hitting that note, Eagle Eye is almost frighteningly good.
The problem is, the film only hits that note for about the first 45 minutes, at which point the source of the mystery voice is revealed, and the story goes from being a paranoid post-9/11 nightmare to being a goofy piece of sci-fi junk. Again, no spoilers here. I will simply say that the explanation provided was distinctly not what I was hoping for. It reeks of a screenplay taking the easy way out. The back half of Eagle Eye seems to say, Why try for a too-close-for-comfort tale of Big Brother surveillance when you can just choose a more obvious (and far less believable) villain instead?
This being the case, there is nothing for the plot to do other than what it does: devolve into a series of increasingly preposterous action sequences. Seriously, this picture is the new definition of "far-fetched." I could swallow the idea of cell phones and network-enabled computers relaying messages to Jerry, but public signage? How would that work? How could an unseen manipulator alter the light-up sign on a parking garage? And, more importantly, how come nobody other than Jerry and Rachel see these things? That's just the tip of the iceberg. Eagle Eye has scenes that make your eyes roll up into the back of your head, like an extended chase through a city tunnel between a pilot-less Air Force bomber and an SUV. Every time I thought the movie couldn't get more absurd, it did. Worst of all is the ending. The final showdown plays seriously the exact same scenario that Get Smart recently played for laughs. I chuckled this time as well, but only because the finale is laughably bad.
To be fair, the first 45 minutes of Eagle Eye are solid, the cast is pretty good amid all the nonsense, and there are a few nifty sequences, including a scene in which Jerry, Rachel, and Morgan all tussle on an airport luggage conveyer. It's not a complete wash, by any means. That said, the movie still ranks as one of 2008's biggest disappointments. The potential was here for a real nerve-jangler - a story that was uncomfortably close to where the Patriot Act has put us now and where it could put us in the near future. Instead, Eagle Eye is just another run-of-the-mill action picture that abandons any ambition it had in favor of cheap-o science fiction gimmickry.
( out of four)
Eagle Eye is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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