The paranoid strain in American suspensers proceeds into the terror era with “Eagle Eye,” a thriller that imagines an all-seeing national government that even the most conspiratorial-minded viewers will see as a tad far-fetched. Hatched some time ago from an uncredited idea by exec producer Steven Spielberg and problematically posited as a present-day actioner (rather than the future-set drama it could plausibly be), the pic’s first 35 minutes sizzle until a Byzantine plot nudges the story toward near-parody in the final act. Returns should be brawny in a wide-release opening frame but will fade quickly by early October.
Taking over what was once a Spielberg directing project, helmer D.J. Caruso does more with the film than is offered by the script, credited to four writers. Still, the pic’s increasingly chaotic and cockeyed notions of national security overwhelm fine lead perfs by Shia LaBeouf in his first thoroughly adult role as Chi-town slacker Jerry, and Michelle Monaghan as Rachel, both ensnared in a cyber-conspiracy that seemingly knows no end.
A botched U.S. air attack on an Al Qaeda-type suspect carries graver ramifications than the terrorists’ retaliatory strikes. In apparently unconnected action, Jerry holds down a zero job at a copying joint and is late on the rent, while Rachel sees her son Sam (Cameron Boyce) off on a trip to music school. Jerry learns the tragic news that his twin brother and decorated Air Force officer Ethan (also LaBeouf, seen in brief snippets) has been killed in a bus accident.
Suddenly, Jerry finds himself as a Hitchcockian wrong man, his paltry bank account flush with cash and his apartment crammed with sophisticated weaponry, while both he and Rachel receive cell calls from a robotic-sounding female voice ordering them about. Jerry’s arrest and interrogation by FBI agent Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton), who suspects he and Ethan are potential terrorists, lead to a set of increasingly improbable events that draw liberally on Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (the later version), as well as a slew of evil computer pics from “2001” to “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”
Essence of the film’s paranoid vision is that the Defense Dept. has created an all-seeing computer dubbed “Aria” (thus, the female voice, not credited onscreen, though with wads of dialogue) designed to track, spy and assess domestic terror risks. This virtual defender, in effect, has a fit after its recommendations for attacks are overridden, and employs “Project Guillotine” to target and kill the top 12 U.S. officeholders.
Jerry and Rachel’s roles in all of this are as impossible to swallow as the notion that the same U.S. government that so badly botched the initial attack can create such a thoroughly brilliant and omnipotent device that even high-tech weapons can’t defeat.
Caruso manages to nudge the excitement along as a way to distract from the narrative nonsense, energetically cutting between Jerry and Rachel’s nonstop cat-and-mouse game with the dogged Morgan, and Air Force investigator Zoe (Rosario Dawson, solid in a straight-arrow role capped with a laughable action moment) searching for the truth behind Ethan’s activities and Aria herself. Some messily staged and edited car chases mar an otherwise clean and often subtly staged set of sequences, especially an elegant one in the Capitol Building before and during the State of the Union address.
Taking on the kind of role Tommy Lee Jones used to do in his sleep, Thornton revives it with his personal, prickly sensibility. Thesps have the especially difficult job — most notably LaBoeuf, in a cheeky variation on a similar Hitchcock-brand character he played in Caruso’s “Disturbia” — of looking super-serious when things get absurd.
Speilbergian quality and scale of production values and effects abound, from a completely convincing underground Pentagon to a fanciful Aria that looks designed by Buckminster Fuller. Darius Wolski’s lensing is a huge contribution, while Brian Tyler’s score is blandly generic.