Film Reviews

Fade to Blackout

Not far into The Trigger Effect, we see a street sign which reads "Maple Ct." This is probably a nod by writer/director David Koepp to "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," a 1959 episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. If it isn't, it ought to be.

"Maple Street" was about a suburban community that regresses into paranoia and barbarism almost immediately when the electrical power goes haywire. In The Trigger Effect, a massive blackout takes an upper-middle-class California family to the edge of the Dark Ages.

But while Serling was making a point about the Cold War mentality, Koepp's point is a mixture of James Burke and Robert Bly--how modern technology has castrated bourgeois men. The Trigger Effect exploits the white-collar male's fear that what his lover really wants, all things being economically equal, is a working-class stud. The film is a sort of sexual Emergency Broadcast System test for guys: If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been revealed for the wussy you are.

Not since the Three Mile Island scare hit just weeks after the opening of The China Syndrome in 1979 has there been such an apocalyptic piece of unplanned (?) publicity as the one The Trigger Effect received in mid-August from the massive blackout that affected most of the West. My power was out for about four hours, and somewhere in the middle of it, I was struck by the queasy realization that my wife and dog and I were, in effect, stranded in the middle of the desert in high summer with no bottled water, few nonperishable foods, and less than half a tank of gas in either of our cars. It was pretty unnerving at the time, but by later that evening, while I was watching TV and eating a fast-food burrito, the worry seemed distant indeed.

The Trigger Effect opens with shots of wolves tearing at a carcass, with a power substation--all that separates us from them--in the background. From here, the scene shifts to a movie theatre. A young black man (Richard T. Jones) receives a glaring racist diss at the concession stand. He goes into the theatre, where he talks too loudly with his companion, triggering a shush from the row in front of him, from the wife, Annie (Elisabeth Shue), of our hero Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan). Matthew is caught up in the one conflict that even the most cautious of modern-day wimps finds it hard to avoid: between annoyed date and obnoxious movie neighbor. He, like most of us, ducks it cravenly and feels humiliated about it afterward.

This scene, which acts as a prologue, serves not only to depict the roundelay of discourtesies and resentments typical of modern life, but also to show how technology narcotizes us from acting on them. Society doesn't boil over into violence and chaos (very often) because no matter how badly we want or feel pressure to bash our neighbors' heads in, we want to watch the movie and eat our popcorn even more.

The power in the theatre flickers off in this scene, then comes on again immediately. Later that night, while Matthew and Annie are at their roomy suburban home with their baby, it goes out and stays out, not only all over the city, but apparently over the whole country--no lights, no phones, no radio even.

We don't see where Koepp--who co-wrote the screenplay for Jurassic Park, but is debuting as a director--is going with this until the next day, when the baby is sick and needs her usual amoxicillin. Without a phone call from the doctor, Matthew can't get the druggist to dispense the medicine, so he desperately sneaks back into the pharmacy, filches it, and barely eludes capture by the security guard. As soon as Annie hears of his adventure, she becomes madly aroused, but a galling coitus interruptus occurs in the form of Matthew's sexy friend Joe (Dermot Mulroney), who shows up to wait out the crisis with them.

Joe's a workin' man, and so with Annie going all hot and wiggly every time a guy acts manly and hunter/gathererish in her presence--along with the strong suggestion that there's already an attraction between her and Joe--the conflict is set. With the lights out, Matthew is inadequate to the task of keeping his wife. Quite incidentally, there's also danger from looters, burglars and suspicious, gun-happy neighbors.

Matthew doesn't grasp that the 'burbs are not the mighty fortress he assumed they were until he asks a neighborhood police officer, "What's it like out there?" The cop's blunt reply: "Out where?" On the verge of panic, the three decide to pack the car, take the baby and head for the hills.

Koepp keeps the pacing tight, and he stages the suspense scenes crisply. He also has a nice eye. A crow sits on a dead tree in the foreground of one shot, while in the hazy distance we can see a nuclear power plant--ominous nature and ominous technology packed into one neat composition, with the formation hinting at which of the two would win.

On a thematic level, Koepp shows even more deftness. The various episodes are woven together expertly, and there's cunning slipperiness to the point of view. Just as you're about to decide that Koepp really is reactionary, the film's position toward guns or race or class shifts dramatically. Ultimately, The Trigger Effect is a political wash, which appears to be part of its point--Koepp's saying that both liberal piety and reactionary hysteria are made irrelevant when the technological stops are kicked out from under modern society, because in that event, we simply wouldn't trust one another enough to function, no matter what we say we believe.

The black moviegoer from the opening recurs throughout the film. He seems to be intended as a symbol of the societal Other; the stranger we don't know and haven't tried to understand, and whom we can't quite believe exists for any other reason than to make us anxious.

What's amazing is that Koepp could make such a gripping and unpretentious little thriller, stuff it full of good, provocative observation, and still wrap it around such a silly subtext. In spite of all real-life evidence to the contrary, the film is perfectly comfortable with the notion that come the Big Blackout, it would fall at once to men to take care of business, and women would "revert" quickly into dependent little vixens. It's also clear that Annie's sexual avidity toward manliness isn't just a cave-girl angling toward whoever can best provide for her--she's genuinely turned on; it's what she by her nature prefers.

Much of this subtext's dominance arises simply from the erotic force of Shue's performance. After years of playing fresh-faced, forgettable ingenues, Shue received, rightly, the first major praise of her career for playing the passionate, ready-for-anything call girl in Leaving Las Vegas. Now she's like a high school girl who's learned what it takes to be popular, and she wastes no time getting all hot and bothered in The Trigger Effect--she's fondling herself through her bra before the film is 20 minutes along.

Though both MacLachlan and Mulroney are serviceable, the characters they're playing are--by design--generic. Apart from Michael Rooker, who is memorable as a scary stranger asking for a ride, Shue does the only vivid acting in the film. Her animal-in-helpless-heat act may be overplayed, may even be offensive, but without it The Trigger Effect would be too generic. She's the wild card the movie needs, even as she pushes it backwards down the retrograde.

The Trigger Effect:
Directed by David Koepp; with Kyle MacLachlan, Elisabeth Shue, Dermot Mulroney, Bill Smitrovich, Michael Rooker, Philip Bruns and William Lucking. Rated