A far cry from his script work for “Mission: Impossible” and “Jurassic Park,” David Koepp’s writing-helming bow is a bleak, highly stylized view of modern civilization. While “The Trigger Effect” maintains a potent mood of postmodern dread, even its proponents will be wondering what all the queasy fuss was about.
Story concentrates on Matt (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue), a youngish married couple feeling the strains of parenthood and Southern California life. Specifically, a rough night of shushing black toughs at a downtown movie theater is made worse when they come home to discover that their baby girl has a bad ear infection. They call the doctor, but the next thing you know, the power goes out all over town; the phone lines also fizzle, and even Tom Cruise’s IMF crowd couldn’t get their prescription filled. Matt has to take drastic action, and his derring-do at a local pharmacy arouses Annie’s ardor even as her philosophical alarm bells go off.
Tension is mounting on both fronts when macho Joe (Dermot Mulroney) shows up at their suburban enclave. An old pal or something — the script never makes their relationship clear — his working-class persona pushes Matt’s yuppie buttons; Annie appears to like him just fine.
The threesome decides to hold down the fort together during the power outage, with all the booze and word games they can muster. Things turn gruesome when the men chase a would-be looter out into the street, where he’s shot dead by a trigger-happy neighbor. This prompts the pic’s key line: When the authorities arrive, Matt asks, “Is it bad out there?” prompting a cop to glance at the white-sheeted body and reply, “Out where?”
It’s a sharp exchange, but — like the academic-sounding title — it also reveals the helmer’s didactic intent. He’s so keen on showing us the extremes people will go to in a hothouse situation that he forgets to suggest what they’d be like when things are normal.
For a while, pic is kind of like “Grand Canyon” as rewritten by Harold Pinter , but its real antecedent is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a Rod Serling story that became an early episode of “The Twilight Zone.” In that tale, a bunch of ’50s conformists turned psycho in the face of a rumored space invasion. Koepp seems to think things haven’t changed that much, except for the increased reliance on technology.
Still, the pic doesn’t begin to answer any of the questions it raises. The obviousness of his dramatic device grows annoying, as does the helmer’s race-card trick of setting up one of the theater toughs (Richard T. Jones) as a kind of threatening shadow figure — once everyone hits the refugee road — only to use him in a sudden lurch toward a “Can’t we all just get along?” ending. Michael Rooker’s role as a misunderstood redneck is similarly transparent.
The cast is fine, even if their characters are ultimately opaque. Shue — the pic’s biggest draw due to her “Leaving Las Vegas” breakthrough — is compelling as the confused wife, but she overcompensates for her lack of motivation by vamping everyone in sight. Plus, those frilly dresses and Helen Hunt tank tops might not be the best survival gear available. Clearly, helmer thinks that background details or even simple explanations (the cause of the blackout is never revealed) are unnecessary in this archetype-filled parable. His cool lensing, tight cutting and minimal use of music support this conceptual, if head-scratching approach. It’s a worthy discussion-raiser with an authoritatively cerebral mood, but only the most curious viewers will brave cross-town traffic to feel this “Effect.”