“What is Echelon? It’s NSA’s central computer. It filters all global communications. Echelon’s a juggernaut. It can access any security system on the planet… Echelon’s been compromised.”
In 1948 British author George Orwell delivered a sobering science fiction novel about a future society where the State has become a parent figure to its people. It watches over everything that you say or do like a …big brother. That term originated with the novel 1984. The work has added such words as “big brother” and “Orwellian” to our lexicon. It was intended as warning against intrusions that weren’t yet possible. Today we’ve moved beyond 1984 both in linear time and in Orwellian technology. You’re not paranoid. Someone is pretty much always watching you. From ATM’s to supermarkets, you are on camera pretty much anytime you’re out in public.
Today those cameras aren’t just watching you. They are being stored on hard drives and often analyzed for suspicious activity. I’m writing this from Tampa, Florida, where the first use of facial recognition software was integrated into those cameras. It was 1991 and the event was Super Bowl XXV. We were in the middle of the first Gulf War, and there were certainly credible reasons to believe the game was in danger. The event represented everything about us that the terrorists hate. It was an attractive target indeed. I was fortunate enough to have brought together my father and grandfather to attend the game. Then the security made us feel safe. Today that technology is as available as a fake Rolex in Times Square. We have begun to take these technologies for granted. The Constitution talks about an expectation of privacy, but realistically there’s no such thing out in public. One of those very real technologies is…Echelon.
On the surface Echelon Conspiracy is almost a remake of Eagle Eye. The film begins almost exactly the same way. A mysterious female voice on a cell phone is delivering step by step instructions to a woman who ends up in a world of hurt. Of course, it didn’t even start with Eagle Eye. The scenes are very reminiscent of The Matrix as well. The story really picks up with Max Peterson (West). He has received a new cell phone, a model not even on the market yet. He doesn’t know who sent it to him, but he begins to get text messages that order him to do things. These orders end up providing huge payoffs for Max. He ends up taking a Vegas casino for millions. Unfortunately, it has attracted some attention. Former FBI Agent John Reed (Burns) is watching him. The lucky streak has also gotten the attention of Reed’s former FBI partner, Dave Grant (Rhames) who has been tracking a series of these cell phone streaks. Someone is using Echelon to pull of this mission. In each of the previous cases the recipients ended up performing a task and finished dead. Together Reed and Grant snatch up Max and try to use him to track down the brains behind the outfit. The film follows the predictable chases and fights as we get closer to the truth. No one is using Echelon. Echelon is acting on its own.
While it appears that Echelon Conspiracy is a direct to video release, such was not always the case. It’s been around for over 2 years and had a very limited theatrical release. When I say limited release I mean 400 screens and about a $600,000 draw. Not very promising. That would give me plenty of ammunition to simply pan this film and move on. That’s not exactly what I had in mind.
For what it is, this is actually a pretty entertaining film. I won’t deny we’ve seen it all before. That shouldn’t make it any less entertaining. If we used that criterion on music, who would listen to rap? There hasn’t been a new rap song in 20 years. The film offers up a rather nice amusement ride, and it throws out enough adrenaline moments to satisfy your jones for action. The cast is certainly hit and miss. Shane West is pretty boring as the hero here. He seems to be sleepwalking the entire time. He saves the world doing a pretty lame William Shatner imitation as he tries to convince Echelon that it is a danger to its own imperatives. It’s that kind of circular logic that will bring out the groans, even from Bill himself. Ving Rhames is also a bit of a miss here. It’s not that he doesn’t do a good job, but he plays the same guy he always plays. There’s no stretch of the thespian muscles to be found here. I was most impressed with the underused Tamara Feldman as the sexy counter spy and short term love interest, Kamilia. Unfortunately she gets a couple of powerful scenes and she sits out a large part of the film. She’s pretty easy on the eyes as well. Martin Sheen has a pretty solid role as the Defense Secretary who wants to allow Echelon to grow and mature. It’s a mindless character, but Sheen’s been known to be a few brain cells short of a good party, so it’s a perfect fit. He does tend to scowl nicely, doesn’t he? Edward Burns isn’t so bad as Reed, and he does have some good chemistry with Rhames.
Echelon Conspiracy is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. The film looks a little too polished at times. When I see this much action I expect a certain amount of grit. Everything comes across too clean. Certainly the detail level is high, but the colors are too washed into green and blue filters and get lost in the mix. Contrast suffers as well. It’s almost as if the image were placed in some medium compressor so that everything sort of blended together. Nothing ever stands out. Black levels are solid, and the print is pristine.
The Dolby TrueHD Audio track does a better than average job here. There’s good sound separation during the action sequences. Surrounds are put to very good effect. There’s a little problem with the dynamics, or rather the lack thereof. The sub is remarkably quiet even though you’re getting some signal there. There’s a lot of mids going here so that, while the spread is impressive, the sound itself just hangs there. Dialog is fine, and the score doesn’t intrude too much.
Machines that become self aware are nothing new. Some of the most famous have included Colossus: The Forbin Project, War Games, and The Invisible Boy. As technology becomes more and more lifelike, the fear that it will develop a mind of its own seems almost inevitable at times. Still, films like this might pretend to be offering you some deep philosophical warning against out of control technology, a warning we’ve had since Frankenstein, but it’s merely a playground that allows us to enjoy a thrill for a short time. Look at this one in that light and you’re likely to have a good time. Try and find something deeper or original and you are setting yourself up for ultimate disappointment. Me, I’d rather take the ride and shut down the brain for a time. Think you’ve seen it all before? “Don’t bet on it.”