Blu-ray Review: Echelon Conspiracy (2009)

A.K.A. The Gift

Having only recently joined the BlackBerry revolution or as my PR friend Patrick cleverly dubbed it the "crackberry" revolution, I'm not exactly the trendiest person when it comes to cellular technology.

Like Jerry Seinfeld once said, I still prefer the good old days of answering machine (or voice mail) messages to actual telephone conversations since sometimes it's easiest to get my point across in two minutes when I'm not given the advantage of visual person-to-person cues to let me know when to end a dialogue or segue to the next topic.

Despite this, grudgingly I've accepted the idea of the text message. Yet, it still takes me about twenty minutes to type three sentences compared to kids who can do the same within seconds but I grew up with Atari and the original Nintendo instead of Wii and something called Bluetooth that still sounds slightly filthy and therefore makes me smile like I'm twelve every time I hear the word.

However, while I'll never be able to become a computer programmer like Shane West's character Max Peterson in the film Echelon Conspiracy, I do think that had I received a mysterious cellular phone which texted me life-altering predictions including advising me to avoid a flight that ends up crashing, I'd be a whole lot less cavalier about it than West's underwritten character in Greg Marcks' lackluster thriller.

For example, instead of just jumping right into the opportunity to relish in guaranteed casino winnings as predicted by the phone, I may-- I don't know-- feel a twinge of guilt or sadness about the poor innocent souls who perished on the plane or wonder just who or possibly what is behind the messages. Since as we all know, messages just don't send themselves so obviously something is pulling the strings and as a programmer Peterson should know this better than anyone, realizing full well that this same "sender" can probably yank those strings once more at any given moment.

At least, these would've been the thoughts going through my mind but I'm not a lead in an action movie with a ridiculously unbelievable sense-of-entitlement and selfishness. However, as an actor, it's not West's fault at all and he's becoming quite a great talent to watch-- especially considering I caught this film only months after his mind-bogglingly astounding work in What We Do Is Secret which was so powerful that I felt as though I was watching a documentary about twenty minutes into that particular work.

Yet when it comes to Echelon, he isn't given a way to let us in or show us something to feel as a guy we're supposed to care about since even Jason Bourne had his sensitive side. And the worst part is, West's Peterson is not even a spy but just a Midwestern All-American boy living it up in Europe. So with this realization, ultimately it becomes even tougher to believe, especially when you add in the legitimate covert-ops and action sequences with a great roster of talent like Martin Sheen, Jonathan Pryce, Ving Rhames, and Edward Burns (whom I'm assuming took advantage of the opportunity for the incredible scenery and to fund his next independent filmmaking project).

Given a title suitable for the days of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy-- everything about Echelon Conspiracy which was originally dubbed The Gift when it screened at 2008's Cannes Film Festival feels more than a decade old. And sadly, the date goes back even further in some cases with plot-lines that feel not unlike airline food that's been reheated a few too many times with remnants left over since the days of both superior "Big Brother is Watching" and Cold War era thrillers which include 2001, 1984, 3 Days of the Condor and other movies without numbers in the title.

Throughout the film, I kept wondering if at one point it had been written in the vein of a B-movie paradigm of Clancy's Jack Ryan franchise and contemplated whether or not Ben Affleck had been offered the role had the script first originated in the 1990s before similarities to Tony Scott's formulaic but effective Will Smith and Gene Hackman paranoid techo-thriller Enemy of the State would've made it feel too wooden yet again.

Whatever the case, it seems like it was just never the right time for the movie-- no matter what poor screenwriters Michael Nitsberg and Kevin Elders (of Iron Eagle I,II,and III fame) titled the piece. And following his lauded breakthrough feature 11:14, filmmaker Greg Marcks was granted zero favors by the poor scheduling of having to follow in the footsteps of the Spielberg produced, D.J. Caruso helmed, big-budget DreamWorks extravaganza Eagle Eye starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, and Rosario Dawson since the two works dealt with fairly similar terrain, although ironically Marcks' film had a Cannes screening.

Yet despite the fact that Spielberg and LaBeouf were a bit busier distracting in May with the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series before Eagle was moved back again in the release calendar-- in addition to sharing the same basic set up-- adding further problems for the newly dubbed Echelon Conspiracy was that it was produced by the same family corporation as Eagle of Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.

Thus, Paramount definitely prioritized by giving the superlative Eagle the maximum advertising push for its September debut and moved Marcks' work to '09. While reviews and reactions to Eagle Eye were mixed as some disliked the Cloverfield style shaky camera-- overall, and aside from some of the gaps in logic, I found the film to be extraordinarily thrilling.

Unfortunately the same can definitely not be said for Conspiracy, which feels as though again we're seeing a total rehash of endless works that have come before it, recycled once more in the post Patriot Act and Bush/Cheney era. And aside from some clever moments, it struggles to keep us engaged during its one hundred and five minute running time in a terrific visual and audio Blu-ray presentation from a company that's produced some of the best techo-thrillers and paranoid works of the last several decades.

Filling the film with the requisite "insert action sequence here" portions that just feel as though they were included for the genre's sake, throughout the film, I was amazed by Peterson's complete lack of common sense as he happens upon a Russian cabbie who instantly recognizes the gifted cell phone that hasn't hit the street yet. However, instead of questioning the cab driver about the phone which the man explains he specializes in and knows how to unlock, we must wait for several scenes of fumbling around for missed leads and posturing for Peterson to finally realize that maybe he should've asked Yuri the cab driver back when he had the chance.

Mistakes like these including an opening sequence that finds a woman blindly following orders to walk to her death in an underground subway station make Echelon pretty hard to watch while taking seriously-- whether or not it takes you two seconds or twenty minutes to send a text message.

While per usual you should decide for yourself, I felt that the best bet for Echelon aside from another name change as understandably The Gift would've recalled the Cate Blanchett gothic noir and Echelon Conspiracy is as much of a mouthful as Shawshank Redemptionminus the IQ-- may have been to screen directly as a Starz Channel HD premiere.

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