Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat tells the story of several survivors of a U-boat attack stuck in a lifeboat (of course). The kicker is, the person responsible for sinking the U-boat is also on the lifeboat…but who is it? This effective but simple premise has been ripped off many times, albeit in different forms, and for good reason.
Say you want to make a thriller, but you only have a four friends and a golf cart. An impossible task, you say? Well, Lifeboat gives you hope that you can turn these meager elements into a suspenseful thriller. Maybe you could make a movie where four drunks squeeze into a golf cart and drive into the local shopping mall. However, they slowly find out that there is a bomb planted somewhere on the kart by one of the guys, and this bomb will go off if one of them gets out. Meanwhile, the mall cops are chasing them and trying to pull them off the cart and arrest them (since this is a low budget movie, you could just do this for real and film it, guerilla style). Tensions flare as the guys try to find which one of them is responsible for planting the bomb in order to find out how to diffuse it. Sure, many people might call that a dumber ripoff of Speed, but I would call it a really really dumb ripoff of Lifeboat at its heart.
Devil (2010) was basically Lifeboat in a trapped elevator, but where Satan was among the trapees (looking like a normal human and not a red dude walking around with a pitchfork, of course). I never saw it, because it was “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan”, which probably means he didn’t think the idea for the movie was good enough to direct himself. This from the guy that thought his idea for The Village, a movie where actors stand around and discuss “those we do not speak of” in stilted fashion, was the backbone of a masterpiece. Anyway, a movie called Elevator comes along, which is, like Devil, an elevator version of Lifeboat. I can’t say I was too excited to watch this one. I get it by this point. A bunch of people from different walks of life forced into an enclosed space. The situation becomes desperate, and people get paranoid that one of them is a bad guy, and fears and hostilities spill forth. Yawn.
However, Elevator is aware of the subgenre (one character even mentions Lifeboat at one point) and its limitations, and tries to do something different. The material has a blackly comic wit about it while still being a well crafted thriller. For example, the pushing of the emergency stop button (which initially causes the elevator to get stuck) comes as a result of two characters trying to annoy one another. There’s also a reporter character who uses her phone to record a live broadcast of everyone trapped in the elevator, as we see the situation in front of her being molded into news entertainment.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. A group of disparate characters find themselves in a stuck elevator in a Wall Street high rise on their way to a party on the top floor (no doubt a very white party with very white music). There’s the company CEO (John Getz), his annoying granddaughter (identical twins Amanda and Rachel Pace switching off), the upwardly mobile Wall Street douchebag who is offended that a guard checks his I.D. (Christopher Backus), his token reporter wife (Tehmina Sunny), a security guard named Mohammed (Waleed Zuaiter), a token fat guy who shows up with ketchup on his face, no less (Devin Ratray), and also an older woman (Shirley Knight) and a hot pregnant lady (Anita Briem). Oh yeah, there’s also a stand-up comedian (Joey Slotnick) who once opened for Andrew Dice Clay. He is performing at the party despite seemingly being incapable of humor. Maybe Dice lets the worst comedians open for him in order to look better. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Oh, I should’ve mentioned that one of these people has a bomb on them that is set to explode at a certain time. That’s one of the hazards of being a suicide bomber; if you don’t actually get to your destination in time, you might blow up the wrong people, like the nerd that blows up on the highway instead of in George Lucas’ living room because he got caught in traffic. Anyway, this amps up the tension, both in terms of the audience and the characters.
The annoying comedian is quick to point the finger at Mohammed and make terrorist jokes, because he is a hack. This illustrates the one problem I had with the movie; if you make several of the characters annoying douches, if forces the audience to spend time in an elevator with annoying douches, even if they are supposed to be annoying douches. The upwardly mobile Wall Street douche at least has an arc where he drops his douchiness in order to assist everyone in escaping the elevator. However, the stand-up comedian contributes nothing except being an asshole and complaining every two seconds. I understand that they need a character who likes to complain about the situation, but it would’ve been much less annoying if he actually had some comedic skills. A capable smartass can add much needed levity to a seemingly hopeless situation.
Other than that, this is a tense and inventive thriller that I can’t really say anything else about, lest we head into spoiler territory. However, I will admit that I didn’t see the twists coming, which is an accomplishment for such a simple premise. It’s a group of people squeezed into a stuck elevator and that’s it, so you’d think you’d have every angle covered. It’s sort of like winning a poker game even when everybody can see your cards.