Among his many dubious gifts, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a superhuman ability to detect hyperbole.
What you hear can kill you.
Eavesdropper gets huge bonus points for being realistic where other sci-fi conspiracy flicks usually go for ridiculous crap. Scientists in this movie use standard freezer trays, Petri dishes, and glass vials instead of weird, glowing orbs inside huge laser fields. Federal agents are ambitious and politically minded rather than gun-crazy endorphin fiends. Even the rough-but-kind hero is entirely believable. If that were all there is to it, I'd recommend Eavesdropper with enthusiasm and be on my way. But there's always more to it, isn't there?
Facts of the Case
Liza Raines (Lucy Jenner, Casino) catches a bad break: her husband is gunned down by her sicko kidnapper, and the gun blasts leave her deaf. Inexplicably, she is rescued by a halfway house case manager named Grant Kane (John J. York, Port Charles). He takes her under his wing and hooks her up with a hearing restoration study led by Dr. Gene Kramer (John de Lancie, Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Dr. Reese Tsai (George Takei, Star Trek).
Unbeknownst to Liza, this study is being rushed to completion by Aiden Porter (Costas Mandylor, Hitters), a power-hungry federal agent. When the patients start dying after violent outbursts of psychotic behavior, Liza becomes distinctly uncomfortable. But the study has left her with unusual side effects that might help her survive—if Agent Porter lets her.
Eavesdropper has that made-for-TV vibe, as though writer-director Andrew Bakalar was hoping to convert it into a sci-fi series. He comes from a sci-fi television background, as do most of the actors in the movie. Eavesdropper also lays a lot of intricate groundwork. It would have been a glorious pilot.
Would have been, if not for a timeline of events that I expect went something like this:
• Andrew Bakalar decides to get into the sci-fi TV game.
There's nothing wrong with using a niche sci-fi flick to kick start a TV series. That's just good business. But Eavesdropper's promising first act deteriorates into a mind-bogglingly wayward finale. People with clear motivations and abilities suddenly turn stupid. Tension flows every once in awhile, but mostly ebbs. Realism erodes into cliché.
For now, let's leave that aside and talk about what Eavesdropper does right. It is tricky to discuss this movie without being totally spoilerish, but I'll try. The basic gist of Eavesdropper is that Liza's hearing is enhanced. Bakalar and sound editor Kenneth L. Johnson use clever sonic tricks to get that idea across. For twenty minutes or so, Eavesdropper has one of the most creative and immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks I've heard in awhile. As Liza explores the nuances of her new hearing and struggles with confusion, we take that ride with her. Oddly pitched sounds and overlaid streams of conversation force us to wrestle with an overload of sonic input. We probably figure out what is happening before Liza does, which is a little irksome, but the effect is still interesting.
The video presentation is also strong, considering the low budget of the movie. The transfer, if overly dark sometimes, has a steady, fine grain. Aside from periodic nicks and bits of dust, the print is in great shape. Capable lighting reveals a wealth of detail in the faces of the actors. Some long shots suffer from antialiasing, such as a shot of Washington DC with strobing along the edges of buildings. Overall, the transfer is pleasing.
Actors Lucy Jenner and John J. York create chemistry. You want to root for them. They fit together, but aren't too perfect to make us hate them. The sex scene between them is a high point of the movie; in terms of skin it's relatively chaste, but the banter is absolutely convincing. Costas Mandylor is uneven, though the bemusing script has something to do with his odd character arc. Takei and de Lancie nimbly escape the shadows of their Star Trek characters.
Eavesdropper is refreshingly realistic. I work in a genetics lab, and nothing about the hearing study or the way it was handled tripped my BS detector. We use the same equipment in our lab and have the same types of conversations. Indeed, we freeze cell line so-and-so on a regular basis, and stare at gels and Western blots just as Dr. Kramer does. I can't count the number of computer- and science-themed movies that have alienated me within two minutes. Whatever your profession, their cinematic depictions likely do the same. Eavesdropper is no-nonsense in its delivery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No-nonsense—except for all the nonsense, that is.
Once the super-hearing premise is established, it begs a payoff. We've struggled through this weird sonic labyrinth, so reward us! Eavesdropper doles out a paltry reward or two, but never crafts a satisfying payback for our trouble. Liza's gift simply is. It has little thematic or character implications.
Speaking of the sonic labyrinth, subtitles would have been a huge help in navigating it. As the picture wears on, the bag of sonic trickery gets shallow. After the thirty-fifth time Liza hears the weird, staticky burst, I felt like yelling "we get it! Next trick, please!"
Eavesdropper is sci-fi, and though it is realistically textured, the basic premise is absolutely ludicrous. Why, then, the high-profile insistence that it is based on true events? There probably was a government-funded hearing study in which 14 people died. That's a nice jumping off point for a sci-fi tale. But sci-fi is the practical opposite of "true events." Didn't we learn this lesson with War of the Worlds? Andrew Bakalar goes so far as to label this movie "science fact." If the central premise of this film ever enters the realm of fact, I'll volunteer for the next government super-weapon trial as a way of apology. Until that time, I'll enjoy my life of non-super-weapon-trial subject bliss and call BS.
Indeed, there is a lot of BS in the special features, from the trailer all the way up to the commentary. Being positive about your own creative works is one thing. But to label your B-level television movie a groundbreaking cinematic effort, one that redefines the paradigm of sound and human hearing in film (as Bakalar essentially does), is going too far. Indeed, I heard nary a word of explanation that might indicate fault with Eavesdropper. In my humble opinion, such words are warranted. And forgive my skepticism, but I doubt that government employees involved in highly secretive studies are going to spill classified information to a movie director.
Eavesdropper kicks off with compelling realism, which leads into an intriguing sonic mindgame. Thereafter it devolves into a mess of aimless exposition, left-field shifts in basic character motivations, and clichéd storytelling. By the closing credits, it burns its initial currency, leaving the viewer with a debt of frustration. If the special features had shown a modicum of humility, this DVD might be worthwhile for sci-fi fans. But Eavesdropper is but a whisper of promise.
On the charge of dropping eaves, this court hereby declares that the defendant be turned into something…unnatural.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Freestyle Home Entertainment
• Director's Commentary
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