We don’t envy makers of techno thrillers. Go too tech-savvy and you lose most people who don’t know anything about technology except that the best way to fix their gadgets is to turn them off and then back on again (guilty). Go too simplistic and there’s no real hook to your story beyond the pretty people and a heart-pounding score. Either extreme also carries the pitfall of being laughed at in a decade or even just a few years. Remember “The Net”? All that said, the bland, boring “Paranoia” does little to distinguish itself and isn’t good (or even enjoyably bad enough) to be passable even as Saturday afternoon cable fodder. And we say this as people who will sit through “Deep Blue Sea” every time it's on.
Liam Hemsworth (“The Hunger Games”) stars as Adam Cassidy, a 27-year-old tech guru who has been slaving away at Wyatt Industries with no luck. After a pitch to the company’s founder Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) goes horribly wrong, Adam is left without a job and wondering how to pay the medical bills for his ailing father (the always great Richard Dreyfuss). With the company credit card in hand, he treats himself and his fired pals to a night out at a New York club. Wyatt discovers that he spent $16,000 and forces Adam to work for his longtime rival Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford), whose company Eikon is developing a cell phone that will likely kill Wyatt Industries. As Adam commits corporate espionage under the watch of Wyatt and under the gun of his thug Miles Meechum (Julian McMahon, slimy as ever), he also falls for Eikon’s head of marketing, Emma Jennings (Amber Heard, “The Rum Diary”). He’s in over his head (as people in these types of movies often are), but can he find a way to do the right thing, get the girl, and avoid the FBI? If you’re wondering, you’ve never seen a techno thriller (or any movie, really) before.
If “Paranoia” is successful at anything, it certainly proves that director Robert Luketic (“The Ugly Truth,” “Killers”) can make a bad movie with or without Katherine Heigl. The stylistic choices (when they’re actually made) here make little sense, even from the film’s opening credits. Hemsworth’s Adam gives an ominous voiceover narration, portending future terror to come, while cast and crew names appear on screen with intentionally glitchy editing. Because the movie’s about technology. He’s also likely responsible for hiring hack DJ Junkie XL to do the techno score. Because the movie’s about technology.
Speaking of which, the concept of the film’s MacGuffin, a futuristic cell phone—and all surrounding tech—seems to be roughly on the level of what can be understood by a Midwestern mom who’s happy with her iPhone 3GS and terrified of companies tracking her personal data. We understand that most wide release thrillers need to have mass appeal, but it doesn’t make the film’s characters—who are theoretically geniuses in the space—appear that smart. For that matter, everything in the movie seems to be from the perspective of a Midwestern mom. No offense, but that’s really the only person who would buy that Hemsworth’s Adam is a hipster, as he’s described in the film presumably just because he wears a hoodie and sneakers. Even “2 Broke Girls” has a more realistic view of Brooklyn.
Though there are issues from the direction to ADR, the film's biggest problem is its script from Jason Dean Hall (“Spread”) and Barry Levy (“Vantage Point”). Based on the novel by Joseph Finder, the sceenplay is overly simplistic and predictable in its good-guy-forced-to-do-bad-things arc. Even its undistinguished title points to the film's problems. Oddly, Adam and the film's other characters aren't nearly as suspicious as they should be for people who know exactly how invasive technology can be. Despite all that, the worst part is the dialogue that includes LOL-worthy clunkers like “Get our IT guy on the line!” At times, there’s a lack of understanding about how 20-somethings talk in reality, while many of the film’s other lines feel like they could be said by real people, albeit real people who aren’t very smart. Or interesting. Or worth listening to.
At least they’re worth looking at. Hemsworth’s most charming moments are when his lower abs are visible, but following close behind are the early scenes between him and Heard. They’re at their best when they’re arguing, and both seem to come alive in a way that isn’t evident in later, more friendly interactions in the film. But their chemistry is nowhere near the sparks between Ford and Oldman. They’re two very different actors with a different approach to the craft, but it’s fascinating to see the two reunited 16 years after “Air Force One.” Ford’s president had far more right to righteous anger in their previous pairing, but it’s nice to see the actor cast as something other than the hero and get to snarl a bit. On the scale of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”’s George Smiley to “The Fifth Element”’s Zork, Oldman falls more toward the former, often playing Wyatt with a measured restraint but it’s never boring to watch. If only the same could be said of the film as a whole. [C-]