Panic Button

Scarlett Alice Johnson in Panic Button

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 May

 

Maiden flight of the world’s first passenger jet, 1952

On this day in 1952, the de Havilland DH 106 Comet was introduced into service by BOAC airlines. It was the world’s first commercial jet and its clean lines, big square windows, relatively quiet cabin and comfortable interior meant it looked like it was going to be a success. However, things did not start auspiciously for the plane. Several Comets had to abort take-off as they were taxiing down the runway. Over the next year, three in-air catastrophes occurred, with planes falling apart in mid-air. It was discovered that the square windows were at least partly to blame – metal fatigued easier at the corners. The high cabin pressure, speed of the plane and use of new construction materials were undoubtedly contributory factors too. The Comet was taken out of service and redesigned. Once back in service, flights on the Comet were around 50 per cent faster than by old piston-powered airplanes, and the jets could also climb faster. This reduced the journey time on the London to Tokyo route from 86 hours and 35 minutes to 36 hours. In its new form it continued flying, in one form or another, for the next 60 years, though Boeing’s bigger, faster 707, which had learnt from the pioneering Comet’s mistakes, stole much of the Comet’s early glory.

 

 

 

Panic Button (2011, dir: Chris Crow)

Not to be confused with a film of the same name from a couple of years later, or the Jodie Foster Panic Room, Panic Button is a British high-concept thriller set entirely on board a plane. A “bottle movie”, in other words. And it looks cheap, from the off, it must be said. No matter, it’s a slow-burning affair about four tweety/texty modern people who have just met, all of them winners of some competition run by a social networking site. Their prize is a trip in a plane to a mystery destination, where they will receive a gift, again not specified. Give this film about 20 minutes to warm up – the actors look like they’re feeling their way into their parts, and the “edited on my laptop” looks take a while to adjust to as well. Because once Panic Button gets going, it really gets going. The hint as to what it’s all about comes very early on – social media – with the “winners” of the competition becoming increasingly aware that whoever is running this “competition” knows a lot more about them than they thought. What’s more, that knowledge is used against them as they’re forced to make gruesome, agonising choices between the people who are with them on the plane and their friends on Facebook (though that name is never used, Mr Zuckerberg’s operation seems to be what the film’s quartet of writers has in mind). It is often said that for a horror story to work properly there needs to be some basic anxiety that it is addressing (Is the babysitter going to murder the kids? Will a man attack me while I’m in the shower?). Panic Button is ingenious because it’s about some anxiety that perhaps we should have, but probably don’t. How much is too much sharing of personal knowledge on the internet? Are we overdoing it? Could someone really do something very nasty with it? And I don’t mean hack into your bank account. If Panic Button ultimately loses its cool in its final reveal, offering us an explanation for everything which is pretty much unnecessary, it’s been a tight and pleasurably nasty film until then.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A very simple and effective thriller
  • Scarlett Alice Johnson – of EastEnders fame – in the cast
  • An attractive working through of a “trolley problem” exercise in ethics
  • Mark Rutherford’s moody soundtrack

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Panic Button – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

What Is an Aseptic White Room Thriller?

Julian Richings in Cube

 

The simple answer to the question “what is an aseptic white room thriller” (AWRT) is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s cult Canadian sci-fi movie from 1997. More abstractly, it’s a film that takes place on a single set, usually white though not necessarily. Lighting will be clean, clinical, fairly devoid of shadow. Soundtrack music will be scarce or absent. As for sound design, a background hum of air-conditioning is standard. Clanking, the whooshing of doors, “noises off”.

It’s the plot that is most definitive. In the AWRT no one really knows what’s going on. Typically the film opens with the characters who don’t know each other waking up somewhere far from home, to find that off-screen somewhere, in the bowels of the spaceship they’re on, or in a dark corner of the warehouse they’re in, something is out to get them.

Banding together is the sensible option and it’s usually the person who is most vocally against this course of action who gets it (whatever “it” is) first.

Alien has elements of the Aseptic White Room Thriller, though in the purest manifestation of the form we never get to see the antagonist, the creature. Because the creature is, in effect, other people. And if that’s tickling a memory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “hell is other people”, then you’ve arrived at the modern source of all Aseptic White Room Thrillers, Sartre’s Huis Clos, a vision of hell in which three people are punished by being locked up with each other for eternity, where they must struggle not to become an object of someone else’s consciousness, the great existential burden.

Put another way, Sartre was a grumpy bugger who didn’t get on with other people.

 

Some examples of the Aseptic White Room Thriller:

 

Cube (1997, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Seven people of various classes and backgrounds wake up in a hi-tech cube consisting of white room off white room. Periodically reconfiguring itself to lethal effect, the cube forces the initially unco-operative bunch into “pull together or die” survival mode.

Before checking out Cube, it is worth being aware that the acting is very ropy, the script is possibly even worse. But the simplicity of its premise, the starkness of its judgment, the implacability of whatever it is that’s doing whatever it is that it’s doing makes for a highly flavoured, and highly influential piece of sci-fi.

Cube – at Amazon

 

Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)

Moon looks to me as if Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, was halfway through watching the George Clooney version of Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And that’s what he’s done with this brilliantly told story of the lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) up on the moon who discovers he’s not alone at all.

Kubrick’s 2001 provides some of the look, and the inspiration for the faintly mocking computer, voiced here by Kevin Spacey. And Alien provides the idea of the human very much the subordinate to the company’s systems.

All this wrapped up in a story that like Russian dolls within dolls, or turtles standing on the backs of turtles, goes down and down and down towards infinity.

Moon – at Amazon

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Brandon, son of David, Cronenberg updates dad’s “body horror” shockers with the story of a lab rat who steals a bit of DNA from the facility where he works. The DNA is from someone rich and famous and the lab where he works sells, among other things, cold sores of the rich and famous. Because in Brandon Cronenberg’s world the great unwashed will do anything to get close to a celebrity, including infecting themselves with their herpes.

Antiviral is a grungy satire rather than a philosophical examination of the friability of the individual, though the sense of isolation, the clinical setting and Cronenberg’s expert fostering of a sense of dread all bathe the movie in the chill glow of the Aseptic White Room Thriller.

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

The Facility (2012, dir: Ian Clark)

A low-budget British chiller about a gaggle of disparate guys and gals who have all signed up for a weekend of drug testing at some remote clinic. Things, obviously, are going to go wrong, and they do.

It’s the way that this bunch of largely self-obsessed young people unknown to each are thrown together that is most reminiscent of Cube, but there’s also the sight of a director taking the very scantest of storylines and making something compelling and tense out of it.

If that doesn’t mark Ian Clark out as someone to watch I don’t know what does.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Panic Button (2011, dir: Chris Crow)

Four winners of a competition run by a social networking site meet for the first time in the VIP lounge in an airport. Before long they are in a private jet being taken, ostensibly, to a holiday destination. Of course they’re going to no such place.

Shot on one camera by the look of things, then edited on a dying laptop and overdubbed with music seemingly grabbed at random from a fourth-rate music library, Panic Button doesn’t have production values going for it. But it does have purity and simplicity. And throwing a bunch of people together and then subjecting them to psychological torture – which is what the movie does – at 35,000 feet (or however high private jets go) is a nice high-concept touch.

The film falls apart spectacularly in its final reveal – which also knocks back its AWRT rating a bit – but much leg-knotting fun has been had on the way.

Panic Button – at Amazon

 

Pontypool (2008, dir: Bruce McDonald)

A thoroughly gripping low-budget thriller set pretty much in the one room of a radio station, where a former big noise in the DJ world is starting on his first day at a tiny local radio station, some terrible disgrace having busted him down to private.

One room, two people, I think it’s three by the time that Dr Mendez turns up. He’s the frankly bizarre doctor who first voices the theory which might explain all the weirdness that’s been building up as the day has progressed.

Pontypool (the name is Canadian, not Welsh) is one of the more out-there manifestations of the zombie movie, with a high concept so strange that it’s worth waiting for. And its AWRT trappings – a few people, a single room, banding together, a hidden menace – only add to the sense of bated expectation.

Pontypool – at Amazon

 

The Killing Room (2009, dir: Jonathan Liebesman)

There are famous names in this chiller, a loose mix of Cube, the Big Brother TV series, a bit of Bourne, even a hint of the British 1960s spy series The Avengers.

Peter Stormare plays Mother (that’s the Avengers‘ bit), the freakish scientist delegating rookie psychologist Chloe Sevigny to go over the data of experiments which have just finished, experiments which look very like the Stanford Experiment (Wikipedia explanation here) into the inclination of human beings to obey orders.

Except the experiments might not be over, meaning Sevigny is stuck in a big white space while some mad twisted nut pushes her buttons. The Killing Room isn’t perfect but its big reveal, when it comes, is worth hanging on for.

The Killing Room – at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2013