While explaining his business model to the soon-to-be corporate spy Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth), tech magnate Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) relays a timeless adage: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” That puts ‘Paranoia‘ director Robert Luketic somewhere between the two superlatives, constructing his smart phone-enabled thriller out of every existing blueprint in history while winding up with an entertaining, functional finished product. The twists are inevitable, the turns come from a mile away, but a surprisingly charming and humble Hemsworth (no brooding ‘Hunger Games‘ machismo here) becomes a reliable interface for the old mechanics. It makes sense to pair him with the aging Harrison Ford — if Hemsworth was around in the ’70s, the two would be competing for all the same roles.
To remind us that today’s job market is hopeless, college-educated Adam struggles to make ends meet, balancing the demands of his R&D position at Wyatt’s Samsung-esque conglomerate with taking care of his ailing father (Richard Dreyfuss). Losing his health care and mucking up a major pitch become the final straws; Adam sticks it to the man by taking his pals out for a night on the town, courtesy of the corporate credit card. Wyatt uses Adam’s lapse in judgment against him, blackmailing the young innovator into becoming a pawn in the war against his biggest competitor, Jock Goddard (Ford). Adam adapts his technical know-how to spycraft with ease: He talks his way into an exec position at Goddard’s Eikon Co., taps his Steve Wozniak-stand-in (Lucas Till) to help him impress his new peers, and “hacks” into computers in hopes of discovering a rumored phone design that will revolutionize the industry. All while being watched. By someone.
‘Paranoia’ owes more to ’90s techno-thrillers than it does ‘Three Days of the Condor’ or ‘The Conversation.’ Aside from the occasional glaring security camera or wiretapped cell phone, Luketic prefers to drown Adam in the sorrows of corporate espionage. Think ‘Duplicity’ without the comedic edge. The script gives Hemsworth a few moments of romance with fellow Eikon-er Emma (Amber Heard), but the movie is driven by Adam’s low-key mission.
It isn’t that exciting — he’s not Jason Bourne gunning through sticky situations — but Hemsworth manages to inject life into the ho-hum wheeling and dealing of office infiltration. Luketic often falls back on stylistic tropes of cyber-cinema to enliven the scenes, like using “glitchy” shots to add a bit of movement when the action is confined, but when ‘Paranoia’ is energized, it’s coming from the sparring actors. The script rarely services them.
The movie saved by the few-and-far-between moments of Ford, Oldman, and Hemsworth throwing down with tech biz speak. The trio are like three live wires held apart for most of the film, and when they’re clashed together, they spark. ‘Paranoia’ is a reminder of Ford’s abilities; he may be known for playing cowboys, cops, and space pirates, but his down and dirty CEO character plays to his human elements. Luketic’s alchemy turns Ford’s gruff into fatherly wisdom. Oldman is a bit sheepish here, but when he’s stoked by Ford, he’s wonderfully brazen. Throughout, Hemsworth holds his own and layers ‘Paranoia’ with compassion. When ‘Paranoia’ derails into the ridiculous – speculative movie technology becomes more and more exhausting and incoherent with every new iPhone release — Luketic steers it back to Hemsworth and Dreyfuss’ father/son relationship or his friendship with Till’s geeky cool kid, a much richer character than the meandering plot deserves. Hemsworth may be a 20-something stud muffin given his fair share of shirtless moments, but he’s already proving himself a more capable performer than the revered Ryan Gosling. Microphone dropped.
‘Paranoia’ reverse engineers the thriller mold and implants it with the woes of the 99%. On paper, it’s a ripe avenue for dynamic filmmaking. In execution, it’s a flat line run steadily by its leading man. It’s not a stain, just a mark on the IMDb credits belt. As Ford knows, those can be the movies that turn a guy like Hemsworth into something bigger.‘Paranoia’ is in theaters now.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.