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Panic Button (2011)
Director: Carl Crow

review by Paul Higson

I have many Facebook friends and a motley lot they are too. Corrupted English, perfect English, the opinionated, the funny, the contrarians, the left-field thinkers, the postmodern, the mentally unstable, the regionally colloquial, the reporters, the sellers and the dissectors, the angry and the argumentative, the teasers and the egomaniacal. Every musical taste is represented and many good causes promoted and a superabundance of interests shared. So if I was to create a fictional Facebook it would have to replicate that variety. Not because of how a social network might ascribe itself to an individual, because some people use each with a purpose in mind be it a particular social outcrop or a theme shared, but because of the generality and variety of that wider network of users.

For his debut horror film Panic Button, director Carl Crow (along with co-writers Frazer Lee, John Shackleton and David Shilletoe) invents a social network site called 'all2gethr', with millions of members worldwide. Four of them, from Wales, have just won a dream trip to New York. But the four are introduced badly. It's a "fucking A!" and "Get in there!" quartet which I can no longer believe in. Having cavorted Facebook for two years, I simply cannot accept that four people can be this dull. Even those who don't express themselves as well as others have traits and the cyphers of filmdom are all the weaker for it. I concede that there is a possibility that the four writers of Panic Button tried to introduce their fictional foursome as exactly this ordinary and the plot necessitated that they were chosen for the 'competition' because of their limited nous and potentiality as victims. The inevitable twist finale to some extent counters that. This is a chosen group but not for the reasons we think, though their clichéd character simplicity could still be argued to have played its part in their entrapment.

The trip is a trap. The four are given a round of questions the answers to which reveal vices, addictions, serious character flaws and kinks. The sequence takes up the second ten minutes of the film and the story takes hold, but we are not leaving the cabin and the onus is on the makers to maintain both our interest and our credulity; but as the rounds get uglier and deadlier so too wanes the credibility of the concept. When the third round requires a task be completed by each, the wary viewer, denied access to the details, suspects that the instruction is murder and so in some cases it is. Incredibly, it never occurs to any of the participants that just as it is their mission to kill a fellow passenger so too should they be watchful of someone with similar instructions but with them as a target. One of the four is an impostor, but is he one of the puppeteers or an opportunist. The answer is in his passport but why was this not flagged up on boarding. This character has been a familiar guest since Rene Clair replaced Philip Lombard with a friend assuming Lombard's name in And Then There Were None (1945).

There are some smart moves along the way which I would hate to give away, creating huge shifts in perspective for the protagonists, and the final about-turn is unseen but also makes the whole premise all the more inconceivable. As the press picks up on the story in its aftermath, a major clue as to the identity of the villain must come in the affordability of the venture, and who among the few could have the money and means to purchase the jet and rig it up in this fashion. Though the seeming army of accomplices are retrospectively explained it can be confusing and a little help as the film dive-bombs goodbye might have been helpful to the average viewer.

The main problems with Panic Button are the dominant single set and its comparison to other movies. Though the film is shot using a Red which provides an image of near film quality, the camera concentrates overly on capturing action and interaction rather than a believable environment. The interior of the plane is an over-lit, static space. Turbulence free it is the declaration of a set. The recent Altitude (2010) worked in a smaller space, a light airplane, equally restricted and a less successful film in many respects, though more believably airborne, buffeted constantly, sharing the sky.

Directed by that lunatic Italian visionary Al Pasieri (alias, Massimiliano Cerchi), the ludicrous Flight To Hell (2003) has some coincidental daftness in common with Panic Button. In Flight To Hell, the jet plane is a private hire and has a number of play rooms for gambling games including golf and a virtual chess board and so many compartments and bedrooms it's more like a flying submarine; even the flying hotel of Robert Stevenson's 1938 film Non-Stop New York is more believable. So it too is a tale of on board games and death. But the demented Flight To Hell is self-confessedly silly and the overall absurdity of the plot and design transcend any claims to reality setting the film in a bizarre entertaining universe all of its own. Panic Button, however, does want us to believe in its premise and nags with its problems. The villain hides behind an on-screen cartoon alligator that, in trying to bring Saw (2004) into the mix, makes for a weak challenger avatar up against Saw's painted doll on a tricycle. The Internet murder game is also a well-journeyed device too, going back to Lynda La Plante's television thriller Killer Net (1997).

One suspects also that the starting point for this was the old screenwriting advice holding a premise to a single location, be it a warehouse or a cube. Though this should be neither here nor there and good films can result from it, for Panic Button it is also part of the problem. Airplanes can be restrictive and overly familiar locations and where once also spoke of destination now settle for a central location. But a warehouse is a warehouse and a plane must feel like a plane. Instead of becoming a useful space it becomes a restrictive one and not even a claustrophobic one. Panic Button has enough tricks up its sleeve to retain interest but not necessarily for the right reason. The soundtrack, we are informed, is available... on iTunes.

Panic Button



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