David Fincher has directed nine features as of 2014, and 2002's Panic Room is almost beyond question the least interesting one to talk about on its own merits (which isn't to say it's his worst: even that would make it more interesting). This is exactly why I picked it as his representative in this series: while Se7en is surely his most influential project, Fight Club the one with the most to chew on, and so on, Panic Room is the one that most emphatically shows what happens when fringe-type artists suddenly find themselves given room to do anything. While he had worked with big budgets and major studios before, it was always as an upstart music video director. The reception of Fight Club was the point that he landed as a newly-minted auteur, and thus Panic Room is the film that shows us what Fincher working with the freedom of a superstar looked like. And that does fascinate me a great deal, even if the movie itself fails to.

The film is a basic, snazzy little conceptual thriller. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is going through a divorce and looking to find a nice place in New York's Upper West Side where she and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) can live relatively close to Sarah's dad. The solution is in an enormous old brownstone walk-up with all kinds of interesting nooks, but the one that creeps Meg out the most is a high tech "panic room", a kind of survivalist vault, built by the previous owner, a reclusive millionaire who feared everyone and especially his family. He also, apparently, left most of his millions hidden somewhere in the house, because soon after the Altmans take up residence, the house is broken into by a trio of thieves: Junior (Jared Leto), the grandson of the dead millionaire, proving the old man's instincts about his relatives to be correct; Burnham (Forest Whitaker), an employee of a company that installs panic rooms and other super-high-end security apparatuses; and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), a paranoid thug who has been brought onto the project without Burnham's knowledge and for uncertain reasons. But he clearly represents a destabilising violent element.Meg wakes up early during the robbery, and is able to hide herself and Sarah inside the panic room, alerting the robbers to their unexpected presence. So begins a stand-off, heightened by Sarah's pressing need for an insulin shot, and Meg's failure to hook up the panic room's isolated phone line.

All the ingredients for Panic Room to be a vicious little thriller are right there: the single location (albeit a huge location with several unique sets), the easily-defined conflict, and enough high-tech gimcrackery baked into the concept that it doesn't risk seeming overly familiar to all the other "woman in a tense, dangerous situation" thrillers that one would otherwise flirt with as comparisons. It could be sleek and relentless; it could have a wry, detached sense of morbid fascination with the fishbowl it has presented. Neither of these things come to pass. In fact, Panic Room ends up being a rather puffy and overworked affair. Screenwriter David Koepp trues much too hard to keep raising the stakes and starting to push things into arbitrary escalations and at least one burst of comic book fantasy in a ridiculous scene involving a propane tank; Fincher directs with a glowering, severe tone, having ace cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (stepping in for Darius Khondji, no slouch himself, who left shortly after the production began) underlight things like his life depended on maintaining an impenetrable murk. This does pay off for the film somewhat: the contrast between the gloomy interiors of the house and the metallic lighting inside the panic room works marvelously well at creating whiplash-inducing shifts in mood that help the overall thriller tone. But it also means that Panic Room is, for the most part, terribly serious, much more a film from the director of Se7en than the director of Fight Club> (it is, though, especially a film from the director of The Game). The screenplay, meanwhile, is pure pulp: it needed something crazier and nervier to match its frankly trashy piling-on of elements.

Really, though, it never quite feels like Fincher ever trusted the scenario (and I'm not looking to solely blame the director: the script is convoluted where it shouldn't be, offering up far too much complicated backstory in the wrong places, and too many of its developments feel like excuses for protracting the action, not like a natural evolution of the situation). For he spends a great deal of energy trying to compensate for the limited scope of Panic Room by using flashy, aggressive style that serves no purpose other than to call attention to itself. This is a film that dearly loves its amazing computer-aided tracking shots, sending the camera speeding through walls and vents and keyholes, and while it's impressive technique (especially by 2002 standards, when this kind of digital stitching was still fairly rare) it doesn't add anything other than the feeling that the film is impatient with itself, and wants to rely on all kinds of whiz-bang visual dazzle to distract us from the unfolding mechanics of the plot. If there's anything the film gains from this, I missed it; it doesn't even help establish the contiguous physical layout of the apartment. Indeed, the location never ends up feeling like an organic whole, always just a bunch of sets cross-cut together. And if the nifty tracking shots couldn't achieve that...

The issue, then, is not that the filmmaking is specifically bad, but that the film doesn't hang together. It's a hollow thriller that's too sober-minded to get away with just being a tense potboiler (though I have read both feminist and class-based analyses of the film, trying to reclaim it from its shallow nature; I have found them thoroughly unpersuasive), and it's a film whose individually well-staged moments of tension - the director of Se7en and later Zodiac certainly knows how to build a good chase scene, and Howard Shore's musical score is terrifically obliging in elevating one's heart rate in those moments - aren't tied together comfortably. The mechanics of the film's narrative structure and editing announce themselves too pridefully for it to be a completely absorbing work of fiction, so even though the mechanics are at times quite beautifully refined, they're hard to enjoy. The acting is all top notch - Whitaker especially (but when isn't he?) brings real soulfulness and doubt to the most humane of the three thieves, and Foster's desperation never feels like a generic scream queen, but like a real person - but it's in service to roles that are all the sum of their one-line descriptions.

If I had to pick the single crippling problem with the film, it's that it can't bring itself to be disreputable, wanting desperately to be anything other than a genre film. While it succeeds at creating a certain mounting sense of dread, right from its famous opening credits - words hovering over New York like the hammer of God - Panic Room is simply not any fun, and its slow, deliberate construction robs it of all its momentum as a thriller.

So the question is, how did Fincher - a director who is very good at supplying thrills to thrillers, whatever his other strengths or limitations might be - end up shepherding such a leaden film, one that amplifies its emptiness in the attempt to compensate for it? And to that, I have no answer, other than a suspicion that there was simply no motivation for it not to be the case. The film was infamously shot over more than one-hundred days, divided by Foster's pregnancy, with dozens of re-takes to satisfy Fincher's perfectionism and the technical complexity of his shot set-ups. That kind of thing can begin to leech into the finished production, just as surely as a breakneck pace of filming a fleet little indie (it's easy to imagine Roger Corman knocking out a film like this over a long weekend) informs its energy. Fussy and claustrophobic in the wrong ways, Panic Room feels like a film that was made with an indulgent production budget and more resources than it needed. It feels like a film where decisions were made on the basis of "what can we do?" rather than "what should we do?", losing all its edge and energy in the process. Fincher is by no means my favorite, but I at least admire him when he's trying to prove something. When he's just using studio money to play around with aimlessly, the results are simply joyless and dull, even when they work at the level of craft.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2002
-The U.S.-Canadian My Big Fat Greek Wedding becomes one of the biggest word-of-mouth hits of all time
-Barbershop breaks out critically and financially, a rare feat for a film focused on an African-American cast
-Scooby-Doo ushers in a grim new age of bringing old cartoons back to life as CGI/live-action hybrids

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2002
-Digital filmmaking advances permit Aleksandr Sokurov to shoot Russian Ark as one feature-length take
-The Irish Bloody Sunday introduces the world to Paul Greengrass and his shaky docufiction aesthetic
-Gaspar Noé perpetrates one of the most disturbing and controversial films of the decade, Irréversible