I’ve just about had it with these mediocre yet curiously smug technocentric thrillers which try to open up dialogues about how dangerous the world wide web is, yet can’t satisfyingly or authentically bring that real sense of danger to the screen, as was so disappointing about Hideo Nakata’s outdated and downright pat thriller Chatroom last year. The inherent problem is that the technology moves so quickly that by the time a film ends its production cycle, the software, if not the hardware, has moved on to become something entirely different. Fortunately, Panic Button benefits from tackling the less fleeting success of social networking sites like Facebook, and boasts a sly sense of humour while fully embracing its own overblown absurdity.
The premise is simple; four people win a prize from their favourite social networking website, All2gethr.com, a trip to New York on a private jet. When they board the plane, they have to relinquish their mobile phones to take part in a series of social networking games based on their All2gethr profiles, but quickly, the intrusive nature of the questions has the participants wondering what the end game is, and soon enough, it becomes clear that they’re going to have to get their hands dirty if they have a chance of saving both themselves and their loved ones.
Much of why Panic Button works is because it doesn’t deliver any condescending messages about how none of us are safe from predators online, and the film generally avoids such melodrama in favour of critiquing the sheer volume of information about ourselves we allow to be disseminated on the web, as well as the contrived images we perpetuate of ourselves. Disturbingly and potently, the film reminds us of how everything we do in cyberspace, somewhere, is stored, and while largely unaccessible, with the right means and motives, there is plenty of damage to be done should someone connect the dots.
Moving fast and fielding out the twists thick and fast, this film remains tense despite an evidently low budget and the extremely confined set of an airplane, from which it doesn’t cut away for a second. Solid performances from the cast help, as does a punchy sense of pace, but an involving script is the biggest winner; it doesn’t have the characters playing along for more than is necessary, and the smart characters don’t easily believe the reality of their situation, citing such things as the data protection act and the possibility that their friends and family are in on the gag.
While a tense chiller in its own right, it’s also a very funny, witty film, with much of the humour coming from the hilarious put-downs spat out by the contestants’ deep-voiced captor, who hides behind video screens displaying a cartoon alligator avatar. The sly, dark sense of humour is in apt opposition to the self-serious terror of the majority of the Saw films, lacking the same self-righteousness, for the villain here is inarguably nutty, for his logic is resolutely poor and the filmmakers therefore rarely ask you to agree with him at all.
The film certainly owes a lot to Saw in style and concept, but it manages to provide consistent thrills in its own right, and doesn’t just rely on gore as a crutch; the character dynamics and thought-provoking premise do a world of favours to these sort of technophobic thrillers. Utterly preposterous, but Panic Button is gripping and a lot of fun.
Panic Button currently has no U.K. or U.S. release date scheduled.