A spare, streamlined thriller for the conspiracy-minded, Area 51 crowd, "The Forgotten" perhaps wisely leaves more questions than it answers and for the most part manages to maintain its suspense. Whatever coin Sony can abduct during this fall window, pic should yield happy returns in its trek through post-theatrical close encounters.

A spare, streamlined thriller for the conspiracy-minded, Area 51 crowd, “The Forgotten” perhaps wisely leaves more questions than it answers and for the most part manages to maintain its suspense. Although at times overly mundane in its running-from-mysterious-forces motif, the film features solid performances and a tantalizing enough plot — who or what snatched children and sought to expunge their parents’ memories of them — to keep audiences guessing until the so-so climax. Whatever coin Sony can abduct during this fall window, pic should yield happy returns in its trek through post-theatrical close encounters.

Having overseen middling-to-poor thrillers like “Sleeping With the Enemy” and “The Good Son,” director Joseph Ruben knows the terrain and brings a stronger sense of style to this latest production, which more than anything feels like an inflated “The X-Files” episode.

Julianne Moore is in fine form as Telly, still emotionally wounded 14 months after the death of her young son in a plane crash. Despite help from her shrink (Gary Sinise) and her husband (Anthony Edwards), she can’t quite let the pain go.

Suddenly, though, her scenario changes unnervingly: She’s told she never had a son, she just dreamed him up after a miscarriage. Moreover, another parent who lost a daughter on the same flight but has no recollection of her, Ash (Dominic West of HBO’s “The Wire”), inexplicably thinks Telly’s nuts, too.

Somehow, though, Telly is able to jog Ash’s memory of his daughter, and the chase is on, with trench-coated “Men in Black”-types (led by another “The Wire” regular, Robert Wisdom) in hot pursuit.

Yet what could not only remove the kids, but also magically expunge evidence that they existed?

At times, Ruben and writer Gerald Di Pego struggle to sustain the action through (an even relatively short) feature length until the inevitable reveal, which compels them to throw in one chase too many. Efforts to pad out the story include introducing a skeptical cop (a somewhat miscast Alfre Woodard) to join the hunt, though what she can do to help is anybody’s guess.

Still, there’s something creepy about the underlying premise, augmented by modest but extremely effective and jarring special effects. The sound design alone nearly threatens to eject filmgoers from their seats along with the movie’s unluckier inhabitants, and clever use of aerial photography reinforces the sense of an unorthodox power’s involvement.

The chemistry also works between Moore and West, whose character lost his wife and took up the bottle following his daughter’s death. Having fine actors like Sinise and Edwards in smaller parts brings extra heft, as well, to modestly fleshed out roles.

Any number of films and “Twilight Zone” episodes have tread a similar path before, which actually works to “The Forgotten’s” advantage — as the filmmakers employ what amounts to a shorthand approach, relying on viewers to fill in the blanks. And while the payoff isn’t exactly “The Sixth Sense” territory, it at least possesses a rudimentary logic, provided that audience members allow their own memories to lapse and don’t dwell too long and hard on the outcome.

The Forgotten

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios presentation of a Jinks/Cohen Co. production. Produced by Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Joe Roth. Executive producers, Steve Nicolaides, Todd Garner. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Screenplay, Gerald Di Pego.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Anastas Michos; editor, Richard Francis-Bruce; music, James Horner; production designer, Bill Groom; art director, Paul D. Kelly; set decorator, Susan Tyson; sound (Dolby Digital DTS SDDS), Michael Barosky; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Dane A. Davis; assistant director, Michael Steele; second unit director, Terry J. Leonard; special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; visual effects supervisor, Cary Villegas; senior visual effects producer, David Taritero; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Sept. 20, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Telly - Julianne Moore Ash - Dominic West Dr. Jack Munce - Gary Sinise Anne Pope - Alfre Woodard A Friendly Man - Linus Roache Carl Dayton - Robert Wisdom Eliot - Jessica Hecht Jim - Anthony Edwards

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