Pesky computers have turned on their makers and sought to supplant humankind in movies for a long time, from “2001” and “The Forbin Project” through “The Demon Seed” all the way to “Eagle Eye.” But never has one tried to conquer the world on so meager a budget as the contraption in this absurdly low-rent thriller, which mimics the old Hitchcock chestnut about a regular guy inexplicably caught up in nefarious doings but doesn’t show the slightest glimmer of the master’s style. “Echelon Conspiracy” seems more than a little passe in other ways, too, since it’s basically a rant about the erosion of privacy and expansion of state surveillance during the Bush years—something that already feels like ancient history.
The plot centers on Max Peterson (Shane West), a firewall expert who, while on a business trip to Bangkok, receives an unexpected gift—an advanced-generation cell phone that sends him text messages that save his life and offer him the promise of wealth, too. Soon he’s gambling at a Prague casino winning big bucks on the phone’s instructions. But he catches the eye not only of the casino’s security chief (Edward Burns), an ex-FBI man, but of an old FBI colleague (Ving Rhames), who’s working for the US NSA chief (Martin Sheen). And before long they’ve all joined forces to uncover how the phone’s controller has apparently hacked into the gigantic US surveillance computer called Echelon and is using it for his own devious purposes. Or is there a hacker at all?
There are a couple of more interesting characters (and better played) than these thrown into the mix—a classy femme fatale (Tamara Feldman) who works for casino man and an amiable Russian computer expert (Sergey Gubanov) who may not be the schlub he seems—as well as a third that’s a comic cliché (a snooty billionaire played by Jonathan Pryce, who’s given a monologue to deliver about falcons and feathers that writers Elders and Nitsberg apparently intend as an updating of Orson Welles’s famous cuckoo clock speech in “The Third Man” but comes off as lunatic and incomprehensible). But rather than spend time with them, we’re repeatedly stuck with West, who proves he’s no Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart as the guy in the wrong place, and Burns, who looks so bored that he can barely summon up a change of expression, and Rhames, who goes the bulldozer route, trying to pummel his way unblinkingly through the mess. On the other hand, given his political views, Sheen seems to be enjoying putting on his President Bartlett persona again, but this time to pummel Bush and his cronies.
None of them gets much aid from Greg Marcks, whose directorial laxness is evident throughout, but is most evident in the action sequences, which are admittedly small-scaled but also notable for their sloppiness (for which editors Joseph Gutowski and James Herbert also bear some responsibility). And cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore doesn’t make much of the locations with his grimy, flat imagery. Bobby Tahouri’s music doesn’t generate much energy, either, and at times seems out of synch with what’s happening on screen.
“Echelon Conspiracy” isn’t exactly uninteresting, but the miscalculations of the script—which reveals some of the clumsier plot machinations too early for optimum effect while holding in reverse a final revelation that, given political realities in Russia, is ludicrously idealistic—render it inoperative as the successful paranoid thriller it obviously aims to be. And the scrawny execution isn’t slick enough to camouflage them. Presumably it was the fact that the DVD release schedule for the week was already filled that explains the escape of this picture to theatres—it really belongs on a video store shelf or a late-night slot on a non-premium cable network. And that’s where it will be before long.