Earlier this month, Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks got sued for allegedly lifting the plot of 2007’s Disturbia from Rear Window. It won’t help their case that Eagle Eye (DreamWorks), the latest collaboration between executive producer Spielberg, star Shia LaBeouf, and director D.J. Caruso, borrows its innocent-man-on-the-run premise from North by Northwest—there’s even a scene where, as in Hitchcock’s crop-duster sequence, the protagonist gets attacked by faceless adversaries in an open field in the middle of the day. Then again, Eagle Eye could just as well have been called The Young WarGames Chronicles or Die Hard 4: Service Pack 2. Caruso and Spielberg, perhaps in an effort to confuse the lawyers, have strip-mined every movie— 2001, Enemy of the State, I, Robot, and Paycheck come to mind—in which microchips go wild.
D.J. Caruso is the cuttlefish of directors, content to blend in with his action-movie surroundings rather than conjure an original vision. While Eagle Eye’s waypoints are so familiar that a game of action-movie bingo wouldn’t last until the end of the first reel—look out for the briefcase with a red digital countdown—it does at least have some gloss around the edges. For example, even as the movie borrows the traffic-light manipulations of Live Free or Die Hard and The Italian Job, its opening chase scene manufactures a few thrills of its own: The pacing, the sound, and the effects are all in the 90th percentile of such things, and the closing cars-vs.-hooks-in-a-wrecking-yard bit will make for a tremendous set piece in a tie-in video game. There’s also promise in the disembodied Knight Rider-gone-bad voice that’s commanding our heroes (LaBeouf and Mission: Impossible III’s Michelle Monaghan) to abandon the principles of defensive driving. By placing the menace off-screen, Eagle Eye tantalizes with the prospect that the enemy, once revealed, won’t be dumb.
That prospect doesn’t last very long. Spielberg and Caruso forgot to include Phone Booth in their list of movies to rip off—the key to that 2003 thriller is that the man behind the demented voice isn’t revealed until the final moments. Eagle Eye reveals, much too soon, that the movie’s animating force …
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
… is a Defense Department computer named Aria. Like all cinematic supercomputers that go on the rampage, Aria is vexed and mystified by the inhumane ways of the human race. In order to form a more perfect union, she futzes with the power grid; blackmails and kidnaps civilians; uses government drones to take out domestic targets; dabbles in warrantless wiretapping; and commandeers mobile phones, LCD screens, and the home-theater department of a Circuit City as a means of getting herself heard.
Though Aria does serve as a handy preview of what the Patriot Act might allow circa 2016, this level of omniscience and omnipotence feels like overkill when used to push around Shia LaBeouf. After Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Eagle Eye feels less like a vehicle for an action hero than the latest in a series of national focus groups to determine LaBeouf’s commercial viability. Perhaps owing to his start as a child stand-up comic, the one-time Disney Channel star has a facility for delivering post-explosion one-liners. (After one of Aria’s remarkable, technology-harnessing stunts, he notes with eyebrows and hackles raised that “she could probably turn a train into a talking duck.”*) But quips alone do not a popcorn-movie star make. In this age of post-steroidal leading men, you don’t need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to carry a movie, but you do need to have some presence. LaBeouf fails the first question on the action-hero screen test: Do you struggle to command attention when sharing the screen with a computerized voice?
Correction, Oct. 3, 2008: This piece originally misquoted a line spoken by LaBeouf. The correct phrasing is “she could probably turn a train into a talking duck,” not “a walking duck.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)