Computers can be fun. You can play Quake 4 on them. You can download porn on them. You can use them to communicate with friends halfway around the globe. But in order for computers to be even remotely engaging, you need to be physically interacting with one. Simply sitting and staring at a computer screen is boring. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot like work. Which is why movies about computers are no fun at all. That was proved almost 13 years ago with the would-be cyber-thriller The Net. Watching Sandra Bullock sit at a computer terminal and type for an hour and a half was pretty much the opposite of thrilling. Entertaining, computer-inspired movies like Tron and The Matrix are only enjoyable because they aren’t really about computers. They’re about fictional, high-tech fantasy worlds. They're what we wish computers were really like: giant virtual-reality theme parks full of LightCycles, slo-mo kung fu fights and Monica Bellucci in a rubber dress.
Untraceable, the new would-be cyber-thriller starring Diane Lane, misses this point entirely. In it, Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, a widowed single mother working for the FBI’s cyber crimes division in Portland. One day, she stumbles across an allegedly “untraceable” Internet site called killwithme.com. On it, some anonymous serial killer is hooking human beings up to elaborate death traps and filming their final moments. The more people who log on to his Web page, the faster the victims are dispatched. Essentially, the killer’s turning curious viewers into murder accomplices.
See, this nut job has got some sort of fuzzy point to make. Like the film, he’s trying to expose America’s obscene, voyeuristic fascination with death and tragedy. Like the film, he’s doing so by slaughtering a bunch of people in outrageously inventive and fetishistic ways (boiled by battery acid, baked by tanning lights, exsanguinated by blood thinners). It’s like Saw with a social conscience! Which basically makes this an extreme exercise in hypocrisy. Torture porn that pretends to hate torture porn is still torture porn, people.
“Aren’t we all a bunch of sick puppies for watching this crap?” is the exact same misguided moral layed out by last year’s WWE-produced Internet snuff flick The Condemned. That’s not exactly the best company with which to ally yourself.
Given that it wallows in the snuff-film atmosphere of Saw/Hostel/Captivity, you’d think Untraceable would at least be visceral and energetic. It isn’t, thanks largely to the fact that a bunch of cerebral computer geeks have been assigned to track this psycho down. They sit around talking about “mirror sites” and “black holes” and all manner of techno-babble sure to leave any viewer not employed in the IT field confused and restless.
Honestly, this is the most useless bunch of detectives to grace the big screen since The Naked Gun. It sure would speed things along if one of them would get off their can and actually do some detecting—you know, look for fingerprints, quiz some neighbors, something. Instead, Jennifer and her co-workers gape at their computer monitors and wait around to be kidnapped and killed themselves (something that happens with surprising regularity).
In all fairness, Lane is a capable actress and she does a decent job of breathing some life into her thinly written character. Director Gregory Hoblit (“NYPD Blue,” Primal Fear) knows his way around crime thrillers and manages to work up a little tension in later reels. Still, Untraceable is no Silence of the Lambs. Fans of the female cop/forensic scientist genre might be marginally satisfied with the shopworn mix of heroine-in-peril and gruesome-
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