Panic Button

Great camera work, thin plot.

When does one begin to panic? When one is in the safest place one can be!

It’s a thriller within a thriller. Like a box within a box. A jaw-dropping drama that gets going at the doorpost of an astronomical apartment in Manhattan, the story stays inside for the larger part, taking a breather only when the buzzer rings.

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) has a teenage daughter she adores. And a divorced husband she can’t get over. Having to move house, she takes up a double-storey accommodation that was the original keep of a wealthy financier, who installed an impregnable bunker, called the "panic room", in case of emergencies. This closet-like contraption was state-of-the-art, complete with surveillance cameras, an emergency telephone, blankets and lockers of food. It was a virtual strongbox no intruder could enter, and no resident would want to be trapped in.

Their first night in the new house is when three burglars choose to break in. But what they’re after is in the panic room, where Altman and Sarah (Kristen Stewart) have taken asylum. This is when they realise that the panic room may not, after all, be the best place to be.

With a ploy as old as hell, writer David Koepp looks like he’s pulling the old rabbit out of the hat, but artfully delivers a fox. Skirting melodrama, yet sticking to a reality that seems enormously credible, this dark narrative is enhanced visually by superb direction. You know it’s going to be candy for the eye from the moment you see the credits hang as embossed lettering against the high-rises of Manhattan. Quite unlike latter-day thrillers that titillate though hyperbolic screenplays or technical wizardry, the drama here is heightened through a well-woven story, prodigious lighting and a liquid-like use of camera that creeps steadily through space.

This article was first published on 15 Jun 2002.