Jodie Foster stars as Meg Altman, recently divorced and looking for a new home, which she finds in an enormous three-floor brownstone. Apparently impressed by the inclusion of a panic room--a shelter with its own power supply, telephone line, air ventilation and multiple monitors showing each area of the house, all locked behind concrete and steel--Meg buys the property for herself and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Only a few hours into their first night in the new place, they're forced to test out the refuge when three robbers--security expert Burnham (Forest Whitaker), the brash but loopy Junior (Jared Leto) and his creepy buddy Raoul (Dwight Yoakam)--bust in looking for loot left by the home's former owner. So the fun begins. The problem is that the ticklishly imaginative ideas vacillate between oddly shticky humor and a weird sort of emptiness.
For starters, the character of Meg is discombobulating. Who is this woman? Why does she feel the need to live in such a ridiculously enormous place? Why does she like the notion of a panic room? Has she had previous incidents that make her fearful? We never find out.
Things pick up as soon as Meg and Sarah are in the panic room, though tension is undercut during the first third of the picture, when the three thugs appear more like the three stooges with their inept bumblings. A couple of dramatic ploys come into play to keep audiences amused, but real suspense is missing and the film just sits there as the opposing factions seem stalemated. Fincher uses this time to play with the camera and effects, taking viewers through walls, banisters, pipes, even a key hole--so much so that the screen begins looking more like a computer game rather than a motion picture.
Then, halfway in, things take a violently dramatic twist and some real suspense finally gets cranked up. Galloping on to a no-holds-barred finale, Fincher and Koepp plug in plot devices right and left while also boldly snatching from the likes of Hitchcock's “Rear Window” and the wonderful 1967 Terence Young nail-biter “Wait Until Dark”--though they never come close to capturing their predecessors' white-knuckle thrills. But for a film that feels suspiciously like an early summer release, “Panic Room” pushes just enough of the right buttons. Starring Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto. Directed by David Fincher. Written by David Koepp. Produced by Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp and Cean Chaffin. A Columbia release. Thriller. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 107 min