*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross
screenplay by Robert Fyvolent & Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett
directed by Gregory Hoblit
by Bryant Frazer Diane Lane is one of the few actresses in Hollywood who, in her 40s, manages to stay bankable while looking and acting her age. That she's beautiful doesn't hurt, but she brings a dignity and knowingness to a role that can pull the whole enterprise up a notch. So it's a little depressing to see Lane wasting her time legitimizing hackwork like Untraceable, directed with stone competence and not much else by Gregory Hoblit. The problem here isn't so much Hoblit's workmanlike style (after all, he directed Anthony Hopkins in a highly entertaining performance in last year's Fracture) as it is his apparent failure to question the cloddish sermonizing of a script that wallows in clichés lifted from The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and the Saw movies without seeming to realize the ridiculous hypocrisy in which it engages.
Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, a Portland-based agent in the FBI's cyber crimes unit, which brings Internet lawbreakers to justice. As depicted, the agency is a model of efficiency, with the evildoers' doors getting kicked in just minutes after Marsh and her team deduce the identity of the dumb kid hijacking credit-card numbers, or the creepy old guy cruising chat rooms looking to seduce teenagers. Before long, she links to killwithme.com, a site streaming grisly torture videos to sweaty-palmed viewers in real time. The kicker is that the unseen killer has rigged cruel torture mechanisms (an injection of the potentially lethal blood-thinner Heparin, a water bath that slowly becomes saturated with sulphuric acid, that sort of thing) that ratchet up as the site's hit count skyrockets. Thus, in this psycho's twisted mind, he's not really killing his victims--it's the faceless, unwashed, web-browsing masses, with their unquenchable thirst for online atrocity footage, who cause the deeds to be done.
Hannibal Lecter, John Doe, and Jigsaw would all declare this argument to be horseshit, of course. They may be serial killers, but they take responsibility for their own actions, no matter how often they may cite the abject nature of humanity as inspiration for their crimes. The makers of Untraceable never acknowledge their film's own ranking on the torture-as-entertainment scale. Instead, they're hell-bent on the idea that the online masses, guilty of exercising poor taste, are somehow complicit in the worst kinds of crimes that might be committed somewhere on the Internet by some sicko craving an audience. One law-enforcement type declares, unequivocally and without a hint of irony, "Any American who visits the site is an accomplice to murder." The hectoring is so relentless that Untraceable obviously means to send that message to its own audience--the sort of sick fucks who would pay to see this movie in the first place. (For whatever reason, moralizing filmmakers from Michael Haneke on down the line often fail to implicate themselves in that downward spiral they so disdain.)
The message is so urgent, even venomous, that I trolled Google for quotes from Hoblit hoping to shed light on what he thought he was up to. It didn't take long to find this thought he offered the GEORGIA STRAIGHT, a Vancouver weekly: "I felt that this was a cautionary tale that says that anything you do online is subject to scrutiny. I can say to my 16-year-old daughter, 'Please know that if you want to be a camp counsellor and it is discovered that you are doing something online that you shouldn't be doing, you won't get the job.'"* And that got me thinking: It's clear from the supplementary materials on the film's Blu-ray release that the FBI was pretty chummy with the makers of Untraceable, who got a tour of real FBI offices in Portland and access to a former FBI special agent offering his technical expertise. The film takes place in a comforting fantasy world where the Bureau operates smartly and efficiently by acting on hunches, without those inconvenient steps of asking judges for subpoenas and warrants. There's a complaint, too, about a politician being "in the pocket of Silicon Valley," along with a jab at the netroots concept of net neutrality (shorthand for the idea that individuals should enjoy the same access to Internet services as corporations), surely a first in a Hollywood film. What if Untraceable isn't just a lecture from Hoblit to his teenaged offspring, but also honest-to-God propaganda aimed at keeping power Internet users in line?
It's not that the idea behind the film isn't intriguing--it is a little scary to think what some crazy denizen of the World Wide Web might do to a living thing in search of a few hundred thousand YouTube viewers. Moreover, the relatively unknown Joseph Cross makes a fabulously creepy blue-eyed psychopath. It's the hysterical, matronly finger-wagging that wears on our patience. David Cronenberg made this movie more than twenty years ago. It was set in a world that was just being penetrated by cable TV, rather than the Web, but it did contemplate the rise of snuff videos for the masses--the delicious difference being that the Videodrome signal was specifically designed to destroy the kind of people who would be attracted to that kind of programming. Cronenberg's film, then, was partly about the idea that the cure can be worse than the cancer.
Untraceable has no such notions in its head, but the first half-hour or so is pretty entertaining in a low-grade police-procedural fashion. Lane even delivers a mouthful of dialogue about IP addresses and low TTLs that, for the nerd who can parse it, makes the premise of a lone killer streaming video from an essentially untraceable server seem vaguely plausible. (Where he finds the bandwidth to accommodate tens of millions of viewers simultaneously is never clear.) Partly because the actual machinations of the plot are lifted wholesale from well-known films that preceded it, every new development is telegraphed way in advance. The attempt at a Silence of the Lambs fakeout, as FBI agents raid what's clearly the wrong house despite would-be misleading intercuts to the panicked face of the killer that suggest otherwise, is pathetic. (Somewhere in the BD's extras, editor David Rosenbloom helps spread the blame around by disclosing that this unscripted idea was dreamed up in the cutting room.)
When Lane's young daughter shows up in the first reel, you know there's a tedious moppet-in-danger sequence on the horizon. And long before the POV shot 35 minutes in that has someone watching Jennifer through the windows of her home, there's a grim inevitability to this enterprise--the story won't be finished until Lane herself is strung up in some dingy basement space, awaiting her own death by a million clicks. In the face of that unpleasantness, the film's very last scene musters a little bit of juice, yet it's too little too late.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Untraceable has a hard-edged, high-contrast look that translates well to the Blu-ray format. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is gritty (by which I mean there's a fine, dark grain that's easily visible from a normal viewing distance), and the bulk of the film is coloured in deep blues that range from slate grey to slightly brighter shades verging on green; Sony's disc renders them all with great clarity and definition. I could only listen to the 5.1 Dolby Digital mixdown of the disc's TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, but the soundstage was pretty well defined all the way through the film, with lots of ambient sounds filling out the surround areas and an abundance of deep bass adding an unsubtly menacing thump-thump to the sanctimonious action.
The secondary audio track, featuring Hoblit, producer Hawk Koch, and production designer Paul Eads (the platter pays unusual--and welcome--tribute to production design), is pretty standard stuff, but the picture-in-picture "bonus view" puts a more interesting spin on the idea of commentary. The gang's all here--the editor, the costume designer, some of the actors, the make-up effects dude, the location manager, the freakin' construction manager--and they appear in a little window in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen to discuss, more or less, what you're looking at. Also seen in the in-picture window are glimpses of storyboards, B-roll footage, and other behind-the-scenes material. It runs the length of the feature and is pretty slick, except for some abrupt shifts or dropouts in the 5.1 sound levels that take place whenever new talking heads appear in the miniature window. (This could be an issue with my PlayStation 3 hardware.)
The disc also has four behind-the-scenes featurettes, presented in 16x9 480p and ranging from mildly interesting to completely tedious. In "Tracking Untraceable" (16 mins.), we meet the film's original screenwriting team--one is a surgeon, one a lawyer--as well as fix-up man Allison Burnett (he adapted Feast of Love for the screen last year). It's producer Tom Rosenberg, though, who takes explicit credit for the film's smarmy self-righteousness: "The other thing for me that was important was to develop a harsh criticism of the Internet--which reflects my views." "Untraceable: The Personnel Files" (15 mins.) is a love letter from the directors and producers to the film's cast. "The Blueprint of Murder" (14 mins.) is mainly about production design, as Eads and set decorator Cindy Carr discuss various sets and locations. The piece includes a digression on rainmaking techniques for the film's climactic torrential downpour. Finally, in "The Anatomy of Murder" (6 mins.), special make-up effects artist Matthew Mungle demystifies the film's distasteful torture-porn sequences.
On this evidence, the ballyhooed BD Live--this was the first disc I'd encountered that actually launched the BD Live screen as opposed to serving up an error message--is just a glorified trailer-delivery system. It gave me access, through a surprisingly bland user interface, to six different trailers in each of five movie genres (action, comedy, drama, horror, and SF) plus a sixth coming-to-theatres category that included the not-so-fresh choice of You Don't Mess With the Zohan. (These selections should be updating dynamically, no?) I downloaded the trailer for Untraceable--inexplicably, it's not included on the actual disc--which took an excruciatingly long time to arrive in 1080p and was of mediocre quality, having been aggressively filtered to reduce fine detail in the image before compression. It's comparable to what you'd see if you procured it through the PlayStation store--and as long as the PS3 excels at delivering this type of downloadable content, it's unclear what benefit there is in shoehorning the same interface into the Blu-ray Disc itself. Originally published: July 30, 2008.