Once upon a time, Paranoia would have starred Tom Cruise and been one of the big movies of the summer, a cocky corporate thriller about a young, cocky protagonist who gets in trouble with older, cockier antagonists, all leading to a resolution in which everyone tries to out-cock one another. Now it feels almost quaint, like a throwback. You watch it and, despite all the au courant techno geekery on display, you feel like you’ve stepped into a time capsule. It’s a nice feeling at first. If only the movie were better.
Our hero is Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth), a tech hotshot whose ambition gets the better of him when his craven boss (Gary Oldman) enlists him to go undercover at a rival firm, find out what their super-secret new tech device is, and steal it. The competitor is led by a gruff veteran exec (Harrison Ford) who lost his teenaged son years ago; Adam insinuates himself into the man’s good graces, playing on his paternal instincts. Along the way, he starts to feel bad for the guy, too. The double crosses soon become triple-crosses, then quadruple-crosses. All this happens in a world where mobile technology has become so prevalent that nobody has any privacy anymore, and where everybody’s constantly watching and listening to everyone else. Topical!
The twists and turns eventually get a little ridiculous, but that’s what movies like this do. They start off in something resembling the real world and then go off in their own silly little directions. On the Grand Scale of Corporate Thriller Preposterousness, Paranoia doesn’t quite match the heights of The Firm, in which Tom Cruise’s corporate overlords turned out to be working for the Mafia, or The Devil’s Advocate, in which Keanu Reeves’s boss turned out to be Satan himself.
But you wish it would, because most of the pieces are in place. Oldman is perfect as the slithery, rapacious CEO who makes little effort to hide the fact that he wants to destroy his opponent. Ford is more avuncular, but with a predatory hint in his eyes that suggests there’s more to him. Once upon a time, before he shot through the fame stratosphere, this actor put in time playing company men in films like The Conversation. He taps some of that here, mixing it with the more charming aspects of his persona.
Unfortunately, Hemsworth isn’t quite as compelling. He’s a pleasant, strapping young man, but the movie needs him to be a bit more of a cutthroat: This is a guy determined to leave his past behind, who resents the fact that he lives across the river from Manhattan, that his retired, working-class dad (Richard Dreyfuss) has medical bills that are piling up. The film’s story has to turn on his ambition, his hurt, but none of that shines through. It’s understandable that he’s no Tom Cruise. But here he’s not even Charlie Sheen, who pulled all this off so well in Wall Street.
Director Robert Luketic once turned a very different tale of corporate ambition into a masterpiece with Legally Blonde. This is obviously nothing like that; he’s since made more ostensibly serious films like 21. But Luketic’s work always has a confident gloss, and Paranoia looks and sounds great, with cinematography by David Tattersall, who shot the Star Wars prequels, and music by Dutch producer Junkie XL. It all adds up to a bit of a missed opportunity. With such stylistic swagger, and old pros like Oldman and Ford actually bothering to show up, Paranoia should have been more than a decent time-waster.