THE TRIGGER EFFECT (1996) ** 1/2
Koepp has said that his inspiration was the late 1970s BBC documentary series "Connections," written, directed and "performed" by that fascinating man, James L. Burke. It is abundantly clear that the connection to "Connections" is used with dexterity in "The Trigger Effect."
The opening shot is of coyotes devouring their prey at night. You may think this is in the wilderness, but then, in quick succession the next shots are of a large power plant, of a busy mall on a Friday night, of its multiplex and of the inside of a theater. Connections are imaginatively made between animals, technology and humans.
Knowing nothing of the movie, as soon as the second shot appeared I thought that the old Latin saying "Homo homini lupus" (Man is a wolf to man) was the direction the film would take. It did, with a vengeance. The mall sequence is a tour-de-force, a single, continuous four-minute Steadicam shot in which strangers bounce off each other in such uncivil ways that within humans not only are connections shown but the disconnections too.
Inside the theater we witness unpleasantness between some black and some white customers, as Annie gets insulted while her husband Matt remains timorously silent. There's also something disconnected between those two, and quietly reinforced by the cold look of the parking structure they go to after the show.
We follow them to their upscale home in some suburb of (unnamed) Los Angeles. The house, bristling with burglar alarms, is in a state of disconnection with itself, because of messy renovations in progress. There is tension between husband and wife, the kind of gradual alienation that can set in a marriage. It is manifested by several subtle yet telling details.
They find their baby girl feverish and in pain with a recurring ear infection, for which there is no more medicine left. A sudden blackout affects the whole city, at the very least.. Every activity and machine connected to electricity comes to a halt, including broadcasts. Matt drives to a store where the lifeless tills make only cash acceptable. He has no prescription for the child's drug, there's no way to call the doctor. Matt, after an altercation with the unpleasant pharmacist, returns home empty-handed. Later though, in a decision which cannily combines paternal anxiety and a show of newfound machismo, Matt goes back to the store and steals the drug in a good, suspenseful sequence.
There's commotion in the chic development, with neighbors grumbling, advising, consulting and showing more un-neighborly selfishness than mutual help.
Subcontractor Joe, Matt's oldest friend, visits and stays. He adds to the tension as, in more subtle ways yet, we see that best buddy or not, manual worker Joe is disconnected from the high-earning (profession unknown) yuppie Matt. Also because Joe is single, of the "marriage is living death" school, with a succession of girlfriends and with an eye on Annie.
What is not subtle is the blatant way the film keeps underlining Annie's sexuality at every turn. When the threesome sit by the fire, the wife, after a drink or two, loses her inhibitions and engages in not so oblique sexual talk.
Matt and Joe go out and buy a shotgun which, expectedly, has tripled in price. By the next morning, an intruder has been shot dead (How the cops were contacted remains a mystery). Annie gets closer to Joe. All talk of leaving town. (A sure way to guarantee looting). It is at this juncture that the movie begins to lose points by becoming too much ado about not enough danger.
It might have been a study in new stresses added those of "normal" life. The pharmacy bit , for example, could have been extended to a blackout's other problems. But writer-director Koepp cannot shake off a penchant for the sensational. Never explaining the source, extent or estimated length of the blackout, he treats it like a mythical plague that brings out the wolf in humans.
David Koepp has co-authored the quirky "Apartment Zero," "Death Becomes Her," "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible," "The Paper," "Toy Soldiers." His solo scripts are "Bad Influence," '"Carlito's Way," "The Shadow," and " The Trigger Effect." He can be good, but does he like "strong" and hyperbolic situations!
Here he continues going over the top on Sunday, the third day of the crisis, when thousands of cars take to the road in an eastward exodus. The trip, the encounters (some wildly coincidental), the fear of the unknown and of strangers, lead to misunderstandings and irrational violence, as well as to a too neat, Hollywoodish, goodie-goodie rapprochement between individuals and races, while heroicizing Matt. All this is too much deja vu and in far too slow a tempo.
Metaphors and symbols, past a certain number, encumber the picture. Like most movie people, Koepp sees life through Californian glasses. Those of us who have been through much longer blackouts --though, granted, not in a megalopolis -- can testify that the resulting inconveniences can also make people helpful and kind in this "we're in it together" situation. But then, ugly sells more tickets than nice, and, 'tis true, Los Angeles is not angelic.
What is universally valid for developed countries is our modern dependence on technology. But let's not go overboard and whole-hog, and read the movie as a denunciation of dehumanization by technology. Machines, gadgets and alternating current may spoil us or become counter-productive fixations. They can render us helpless when they abandon us. But they have also improved immeasurably the quality of life, work, health, leisure and have added (including Cyberspace) incalculable benefits to our existence. It's too late to become Luddites.