2008, Movie, R, 100 mins


"It's a jungle in there," muses an FBI agent with world-weary disgust, and he's not talking about drizzly Portland's mean streets, where Gregory Hoblit's tepid, fear-mongering thriller unfolds with thudding predictability. He means the Internet, that once glorious conduit for communication and commerce that we're told has become little more than a crime-ridden back alley haunted by pedophiles, frauds and Information Superhighway-men just waiting to steal your identity, empty your bank account and snuff out your life. Welcome to the Web 2.0.

Widowed Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) works the Portland desk of the FBI's cybercrime unit, trolling for the digital creeps who've turned fraud and theft into a high-tech science. Jennifer works nights so she can be back at the house she shares with her mother (Mary Beth Hurt) to see her young daughter (Perla Haney-Jardin) off to school. It's all routine, until the Portland Police Department forwards Jennifer an ominous URL: www.killwithme.com. The site appears to be little more than a live, streaming video feed of a kitten in someone's basement, lapping milk from a bowl. When Jennifer logs back in a few days later, the kitten is dead -- the metal plate on which it was standing was probably electrified -- and comments on the website's blog are divided between gleeful approval and outraged dismay. Jennifer attempts to trace the computer, but the IP address changes each time she queries the server -- whoever is behind the site is very sophisticated and wants very much to stay anonymous. A week later, the kitten has been replaced by 54-year-old helicopter pilot Herbert Miller (Tim De Zarn), recently reported missing. From what Jennifer and her partner, Griffin (Colin Hanks), can see from the video, Mr. Miller's captor has hooked him up to a contraption that's gradually injecting him with anticoagulant. The website's name is carved into Miller's chest, but it's only when Jennifer notices the wildly spinning visitor counter and reads the ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen -- "The more that watch, the faster he dies" -- does the meaning of the website's name become clear. With word of the site spreading and morbid curiosity attracting new visitors by the minute, Mr. Miller is soon reduced to a bruised bag of blood, and the online fiend now dubbed "the Internet Killer" is moving on to victim number two.

In case you didn't catch it, the moral is that each time we indulge our inner voyeur by visiting macabre websites or tuning into salacious tabloid news, we're implicated in the larger cultural crime. As another character says, "We are the murder weapon" (the script sounds like a compendium of poster taglines). True enough, but if Hoblit and his three -- count 'em, three -- screenwriters thought about it for more than a second, it's a lesson that should keep audiences away from their own macabre, sensational movie, which takes as much pleasure in slow torture murders as SAW, HOSTEL and the rest of their ilk. Even worse than its hypocrisy, gratuitous homophobia and cheap proselytizing, the movie is dull: There's a fine line between delivering enough information to convince a general audience that, no, the FBI can't trace the transmission to the Internet Killer's lair, and a mind-numbing glut of confusing techno-babble that bores them to tears. Mirror sites, exploited servers, 'bots... enough already. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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