Director: Matthew Thompson
Writer: Scott Bolger, Kent Murray, Matthew Thompson
Producer: Christine Alderson, Thomas Sterchi, Lars Wiebe
Stars: Jennifer Morrison, Josh Stewart, James Frain, Kimberly Elise, Stephen Rider, Jude Ciccolella
Three soldiers suffering from PTSD find themselves trapped in an elevator after a terrorist’s bomb disables their building.
Three young soldiers suffering from PTSD leave their separate sessions at a military psychiatrist’s office and end up riding the same elevator together. Suddenly, something rocks the building and their elevator car screeches to a halt. It takes some time before a lieutenant on the other end of an emergency call box finally responds to the distress, but she is suspiciously unforthcoming about exactly what is happening. Courtesy of a cell phone news story, the trio soon learns why. Terrorists have detonated a dirty bomb in Washington, D.C., sending a radioactive cloud in their direction. And there is seemingly nothing the trapped soldiers can do to escape before it hits.
“Alpha Alert” starts as a paranoia thriller, and it is this first act that is most effective. Opening scenes brim with mind-scrabbling tension stemming from feelings of helplessness, confusion, and panic. These are emotions that can wind up an audience to invest in the intrigue and to become excited about the suspense.
Then “Alpha Alert” introduces a pseudo-twist that should be a spoiler to divulge, but apparently isn’t since the movie’s own cover art identifies it as “a top military experiment gone wrong.” Couple that with the above summary and you can piece together what the true plot really is.
It is a puzzling mistake that the film does not make an effort to disguise its secret, because that reveal is the story’s big midpoint payoff. Once that cat is out of the bag, the entire pressure-fueled atmosphere dissipates right along with it. Its wake leaves only a predictable action-oriented denouement that is less satisfying than the initial mystery, and creates a too safe environment from the knowledge that the main characters are in semi-controlled conditions after all.
The tightrope walk facing claustrophobic thrillers is that they have less wiggle room than their confined characters. With just three people inside a 10’x10’ room for 90 minutes, there are no external fallbacks for a tempo change if the story should worm its way into a corner. Such tight focus has to sustain audience fascination exclusively on its own and anything less than perfect execution will equate to mediocre results.
“Alpha Alert” does find momentary distractions in the form of therapy session flashbacks that unintentionally prick the taut tension balloon with a nail instead of providing any truly meaty character origins. Introductions already sufficiently root the main players in the stereotypes necessary for the story’s character dynamic to work: capable yet emotionally broken female, misogynistic military man, and “can’t we all just get along” good guy to come between the first two as needed. The flashbacks are gravy on a meal already digested and function mainly as brick walls for the momentum.
With the mystery uncovered, the film’s edges begin visibly fraying before subsequently unraveling rapidly. “Alpha Alert” devolves into a routine tsk tsk tale of corrupt government officials tossing ethics to the wind with a covert experiment of dubious design. With that formulaic filler to finish out the film comes a handful of plot devices too contrived to overlook.
The military’s motives for their test may be suspect, but their methods are wildly impressive. Through technology unknown, the Army doctors can somehow monitor heart rates and vital signs despite no one being hooked into a wire, follow one soldier’s ascent up an elevator shaft at eye level without there actually being a track camera mounted in the wall, and lower an elevator car along one cable without affecting the other cables at all.
Partially salvaging the movie is a quality cast of capable familiar faces, all of whom elevate the material through sheer force of their performances. Lead actress Jennifer Morrison is particularly noteworthy playing a competently tough female officer without sacrificing any attractive femininity. It is a role that is made stronger by casting a woman without having to unnecessarily tout her gender as a defining characteristic.
The cast keeps “Alpha Alert” clipping, but there isn’t enough creativity story-wise down the back slope to carry the premise developed during the exposition climb. By its end, “Alpha Alert” settles into a groove as an average thriller with a few minor highlights, yet no compelling reason to ever watch or mention it again, if it is even worth seeking out the first time.
NOTE: “Alpha Alert” is also known by the alternate titles “Event 15” and “Trauma.”
Review Score: 50