So we'll celebrate Fincher yet again for his tricky camera work and smirky setups; we will adore him for whizzing us through walls and down staircases and for moving us through the Altmans' Manhattan mansion (a 4,200-square-foot "townstone") as though his cinematographers (Darius Khondji and Conrad W. Hall) were amorphous Caspers able to glide through concrete and drywall and phone lines. No doubt about it, Fincher has the ability to dazzle; it's his best gimmick. But this time around he deserves no congratulations for his gritty home-alone claptrap. For the first time in his career, the director of Seven, The Game and Fight Club has done nothing more than make a movie that keeps reminding you, over and over and over, it's just a movie, and it does so with such glib and weary contempt you can't tell whether it's winking at you or just nodding off.
It's the very definition of high concept: During their first night in their new home, mother and daughter are trapped in a safe room -- a livable and supposedly impenetrable vault attached to the master bedroom in which residents can seek shelter during a home invasion -- while three baddies terrorize them from the other side. But Fincher and screenwriter David Koepp (who penned Jurassic Park and wrote and directed Stir of Echoes) don't have much of a clue what to do with the ageless Foster and the agile Stewart once they're captured in that tiny room full of video monitors and a phone that doesn't work. For nearly two hours, they're at a standoff with Jared Leto (wearing Snoop Dogg's cornrows), Forest Whitaker (as that most hoary of standbys, the thief with the heart of fool's gold) and Dwight Yoakam (who wears a ski mask, carries a gun and bears the stink of real menace), who want something hidden in the panic room. In fits and starts, the burglars try to make their way into the room (using, among other things, sledgehammers, propane and Meg's ex-husband), but mostly they bicker with one another, and the cumulative effect is less thrilling than it is merely amusing.
For a film to scare you, it must first surprise you, but Panic Room telegraphs its every move and intention, even in the dark (it's only a matter of time before Fincher makes a film completely without light). We spy needles of insulin, a cell phone on its charger, a cagey cop who won't take no for an answer. Finally, the film convulses in a small heap of gore and half a bucket of blood; the first rule of Panic Room is that, sooner or later, it has to turn into Fight Club.
The darkness does not obscure the performances, blessedly; they're all the movie has going for it. Stewart in particular is excellent as the clever kid weaned on movies and the tricks they teach us; she even manages to overcome that creakiest of conventions as the infirm child who will die unless she gets her meds in time. As Meg, the scantily clad Foster is more remarkable; her calm exterior barely masks a fear that soon enough gives way to unbridled anger. When she tells her ex-husband's girlfriend to "put him on the phone, bitch," it's as though someone opened a relief valve inside her.
But Panic Room ultimately disappoints because it feels so slight; at least The Game, Fincher's most trivial film, laid out its twisted tale with unrestrained and giddy menace -- it was as vicious as it was fun. Panic Room is instead a collage of clichés and a dim echo of allusions to other films -- a bar code tricked up as multiplex art. You've seen Panic Room before; Fincher's made this movie before, when it was called Alien3 (substitute Foster for Sigourney Weaver and Yoakam for the creature, and you get the idea). It will scare the hell out of you only if you've never seen Home Alone or the movies of Hitchcock; it will amuse you only if you've never seen Die Hard or Out of Sight. Panic Room references all those films (and more, from Titanic to the TV series McGyver to pop star Poe) for cheap, easy laughs, and each time they take us so far out of the movie we might as well be in the parking lot. At each step, Fincher tries to scare us silly with smirks, and ends up getting only the silly part right. He might as well swing the sledgehammer brought into the Altmans' home by the bad guys; he's that unwieldy and unsubtle.