What in heaven's name has happened to Shia LaBeouf? He's been given a chin implant, his hair is lightened, and his "acting" is full of nervous tics and weird facial--what's that? That isn't Shia LaBeouf? Isn't this Eagle Eye? It's not? Pardon me a moment--I need to go check the packaging for this movie.
OK, I'm back. Sorry, my bad. This is actually Echelon Conspiracy starring Shane West. You hopefully will forgive me my error when I tell you that Echelon, much like Eagle Eye, concerns an all powerful, all knowing computer with a female voice that contacts various people and then kills them if they don't do its (her?) bidding. Sound suspiciously familiar? It should, especially when you consider Eagle Eye's wide release in September 2008 was months before Echelon Conspiracy's limited one just a few months ago.
In fairness, films about computers run amok are certainly not a new phenomenon. One look no further than the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey or, perhaps more relevantly if less widely known, Colossus: The Forbin Project to see that this plot device has been used repeatedly in film for decades. What's so odd about this Echelon-Eagle comparison, though, is how many smaller details the two have in common. In both a government super-computer set up to monitor intelligence data (post-9/11 in case that escapes your attention) goes slightly haywire and decides to start getting things done more efficiently without those pesky humans standing in the way, albeit while simultaneously contacting various humans via cell phones to have them do its (her?) bidding, at least for a little while. While Echelon benefits at least partially from some distracting location footage in such disparate places as Prague and Moscow, the stale wafting odor of "haven't we already seen this before?" hangs over the project, robbing it of its initial admittedly slim chances to excite the viewer.
The film follows Shane West as Max Peterson. West, who may be best known for his stint on ER, reminded me of a twitching cousin of Neil Patrick Harris in this film. The physical resemblance is pretty remarkable, but West brings the oddest line readings and weird facial spasms to even the simplest moments that I personally found his performance completely off putting.
Coming off quite a bit better are supporting turns by people like Ed Burns as a former FBI agent who's trying to unravel the layers of the government's "Echelon" onion, a super-secret NSA project to tap into everyone's computers everywhere to mine personal data (and why, I might ask, are these "super-secret" situations always so widely known to everyone?). Also on hand are Ving Rhames as a conflicted current FBI agent, who starts out as a quasi-bad guy and then, in one of countless unexplained character motivation shifts that permeate Echelon Conspiracy, does a complete about face and ends up enlisting Peterson to help solve the mystery. Jonathan Pryce is fun in a briefer role as Burns' enigmatic boss, who has an agenda of his own in figuring out what exactly Echelon is up to. Tamara Feldman provides the eye candy element as girlfriend cum martial arts expert, who meets Peterson in a not so casual way and then proceeds to protect him from the multiple bad guys tracking him down (how pathetic is it for West's character to cower in a bathtub while Feldman kicks a would-be assassin's butt?). And the biggest star in this movie, Martin Sheen, hams it up (in a nicely understated fashion) as the Cheney-esque head of the NSA, who is out to kill anyone who stands in Echelon's way.
In a film as decidedly carbon copied as this one has already proven itself to be, it's little surprise I guess that the denouement utilizes a plot element from War Games (yet another film featuring an aberrant computer) as Petersen asks Echelon to engage in a little self-reflection, providing a sort of mirror as Deus ex Machina contrivance that may leave a lot of people rolling their collective eyes. It's so patently silly by this point that the only saving grace is most viewers will have ceased to care long ago.
Echelon does boast some lovely cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore, and director Greg Marcks shows quite a bit of promise here, with some great tracking and traveling shots that reveal someone with a finely tuned visual sense. If only it were in support of a less derivative story.