So we'll celebrate Fincher yet again for his tricky camerawork 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 4200-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 Se7en, 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 each other, and the cumulative effect is less thrilling than it is merely amusing.
The performances are all the movie has going for it. Stewart in particular is excellent as the cagey 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). 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 Leto, Whitaker, and Yoakam; he's that unwieldy and unsubtle.