To be fair, this is a smart, high-end movie in some ways. The camera shots are especially skillful, the film moves like a rocket, Jodie Foster is her intense, tough and vulnerable self. Foster plays a newly-divorced (her husband was loaded) mom with an angst-ridden teen-aged daughter Sarah (Kristin Stewart). She's still in shock at his sudden affair. The kid is appropriately sullen and adorable. The townhouse they have just purchased has a secret "panic room" shrouded in steel with its own vault-like door, life support systems specifically built by the rich and paranoid previous owner to give him shelter against thieves and home invaders. The room has three-inch steel all around it, and supplies of food and drink. It also has its own tele-communications system and a video monitors to scan the house. Unbeknownst to the new occupants, it also has millions of dollars hidden away in the floor, something known to three thieves -- Forest Whitaker (the bad guy with a big heart); Jared Leto (the hyper and incompetent jerk); and Dwight Yoakum (the vicious psycopath who kills and tortures for the hell of it.
The thieves know there's money hidden away. They enter the house thinking it's still vacant. But the movie never explains why they don't just leave and come back another time once they found out there are people inside.
In the movie's best and early creepy moments, Foster puts her kid to bed, then gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Glancing at her video monitors she becomes aware that people are in her house. She grabs her daughter and hauls her into their retreat just a step ahead of the onrushing bad guys. But once inside, nothing seems to go right. It seems that the room is highly vulnerable to being disabled (Whitaker is a "panic room" designer); the super-secret phone doesn't work, the ventilation system is hardly self-contained, and -- here is where Hollywood movies just can't contain themselves -- Foster's daughter starts slipping into a diabetic seizure almost instantly. They gotta get out or the kid will die. This is the best plotting in the film, the growing tension and confusion over who really is trapped and who isn't.
Techies will be instantly frustrated at the pretzel-like turns the movie has to take to make its premise fly. In technological terms, there is no question the world can design a steel reinforced room that will hold off three men armed with nothing more than a pistol and some drills for one night. And no safe room would fail to have a Net connection (this one doesn't); a working cell phone or some secure means of communicating with the outside world. Like, say a silent alarm? (Duh). This "panic room" seems to have been conceived for the 50's, not the 21st century. Barring any of those things, how about an old-fashioned weapon. Sure, it gets tense in there, but mostly you think about the swell lawsuit Foster will have against the dummies who built the room once she gets out.
Panic Room is a nice idea, and it has some genuinely creepy moments. The premise (especially these days) of an absolutely safe retreat within a home is interesting. Director David Fincher does some remarkable camerawork. Near the beginning of the movie, there's an astonishing camera shot that goes down through the house, through the kitchen and out into the front door keyhole.
But the plot isn't plausible or disciplined. There are way too many improbable twists and turns. The bad guys are all stereotypes. Whitaker's thief is heroic. It doesn't make sense to like the villain more than the edgy heroine. Yoakum's psycho sparks all sorts of gore and mayhem that makes no sense, distracts from the movie's taut opening and style, and leads to a loopy and irritating ending.
Yes, technology is never fail-safe and those of us who are Americans tend to believe too often that it is, but this isn't a social science lecture, it's a thriller. It ought to make some sense, and this movie doesn't and that gets in the way. The best thing about Panic Room are a handful of creepy moments and Fincher's directing skills, which are richly showcased. If only the writers had kept up.