Massive power crash. Phones down. No TV, no radio, no computers. Chaos and lawlessness ensue. Suburban proto-yuppies Matt and his wife Annie panic; they have a screaming baby with an ear infection. They can't get the medicine they need to cure the infant because the pediatrician can't call in the prescription. Matt, a pampered, upper-middle-class weenie, alternately pleads with and cajoles the pharmacist to bend the rules and release the medicine without a 'scrip. "You know me!" Matt whines. "My wife and I have been coming here for over a year!"
The pharmacist stiffens, looks down his nose at Matt, and sneers, "I don't know you. And what's more, I don't like you."
That may sound a bit harsh, but watching The Trigger Effect, you'll understand exactly how he feels. You wouldn't admit that you know Matt either, nor do the filmmakers give you any reason to like him. If anything, you'll wish you were behind the counter so that you could have the pleasure of decking the petulant little priss.
That is probably not the reaction writer-director David Koepp was hoping to elicit. Instead of identifying with the protagonists of Koepp's film, you feel only apathy -- a fatal flaw in a movie struggling to generate suspense from the plight of three supposedly Everyman/Everywoman types suddenly gripped by paranoia when a mysterious and unexplained event renders useless the everyday technology they have taken for granted.
What causes the power failure? Koepp, whose writing credits include megabudget blockbusters Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible, never really answers that question. He expects you simply to accept the hypothetical what-would-happen-if-the-power-went-out premise. The Trigger Effect primarily concerns itself with the effects of a breakdown in societal norms among civilized characters, not with explaining the mechanical origins of that breakdown. It's a serious miscalculation on his part. Blackouts happen, but rarely do they take out all phone and radio communication. Koepp wants you to share in the characters' confusion, but first he has to earn your suspension of disbelief by making their quandary believable.
Logic was not high on Koepp's list of essential plot ingredients. The writer-director saddles his would-be psychological thriller with a hole-riddled narrative that moves slowly and episodically. Matt and Annie's sex life has cooled off considerably since they had the baby. Annie can scarcely contain her frustration at the passion vacuum, but Matt doesn't seem to miss it. Enter studly pal Joe, a construction foreman rendered idle by the power outage. Joe brings unconfirmed rumors of rampant looting and violence. Annie, unnerved by the news and reassured by the presence of a male with more cojones than her milquetoast hubby, invites Joe to hang around until the lights come back on. That night, however, she drinks too much wine and openly flirts with Joe. Later, she sneaks out of Matt's bed for a heated rendezvous with Joe in the kitchen. Upon her return Matt, who has only pretended to be asleep, says nothing.
So you figure Matt and Joe are headed for a showdown. But as quickly as Koepp sets up the potential triangle, he drops it and dashes off on another narrative tangent. Matt and Joe team up to confront a burglar, and the incident turns violent. Annie becomes too paranoid to stay in her own home, so the three of them pack up the baby and set out on a long journey for Annie's parents' house in a different part of the state. (Despite having no way of knowing if the power is out there too, they assume the place will be safer.) They don't have enough gas to make it all the way to their destination, but what the hell.
From a claustrophobic suburban nightmare with a potentially explosive love triangle kicker, the film shifts gears into a surrealistic road movie. Everybody's fleeing the city, but nobody has enough gas. A nasty confrontation with a petrol-thirsty stranger strands the intrepid travelers in the middle of nowhere. The stage is set for Matt to prove his manliness by risking his life to save his family and his friend.
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Koepp means to cross the average-guy-pushed-over-the-edge-in-a-world-gone-haywire premise of Falling Down with the marital-infidelity-bringing-out-the-animal-masculine-violence-in-a-previously-meek-guy angle of Straw Dogs. But his narrative is so sloppy and his button-pushing so obvious that Koepp ends up with a lightweight work that seems more suited for TV movie-of-the-week status than theatrical release.
All three central performances -- Kyle MacLachlan as Matt, Elisabeth Shue as Annie, and Dermot Mulroney as Joe -- lack depth and resonance. You sense that in Shue's and Mulroney's cases, Koepp's writing and direction are more to blame than bad acting; their roles feel thin and perfunctory but the actors still manage to inject some spunk. MacLachlan, on the other hand, is a lost cause. He comes off as shallow and spineless even when he acts heroically. While David Lynch used MacLachlan's coddled preppie frat-boy looks to eerie effect in Blue Velvet, they are a liability here. Matt is just too timid and repressed to like unless the actor playing him suggests some underlying strength of character; MacLachlan's WASP pretty-boy looks only buttress the initial impression of Matt as a gutless, sexless, self-absorbed, Volvo-driving, silk pajama-wearing bottled-water drinker. The actor has starred in four of the worst movies of the past dozen years -- Dune, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, The Flintstones, and Showgirls. The Trigger Effect may not be a clunker of that magnitude, but it does nothing to dispel the cloud of failure hanging over the actor's name. Casting MacLachlan in the lead was Koepp's most grievous mistake; the effect his presence triggers is to drain the life out of an already wounded movie.
The Trigger Effect.
Written and directed by David Koepp; with Kyle MacLachlan, Elisabeth Shue, and Dermot Mulroney.