The first clue that the new sci-fi/actioner “Lockout” (opening Friday) probably isn’t a masterpiece occurs early on, when Snow (Guy Pierce), the movie’s wisecracking antihero, is being chased all the way onto a roof by the bad guys. In a harsh interrogation scene, we’ve already witnessed Snow being pummeled enough to make most men pass out, but this superman maintains his adolescent wit through it all. Now, however, looking down on the city skyline, we see that he has an Achilles heel: He’s afraid of heights. How do we know this? Because he says, out loud, to absolutely no one, “God, I hate heights.” People that talk to themselves are often crazy, but in a movie featuring many psychopaths, Snow isn’t one of them – he’s just the victim of lazy, expository screenwriting.
With three screenplay credits, including that of French action maestro Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”), it’s shocking what little thought went into the final product, a wheezy gasbag of an action film. It’s set in 2079, but because the movie lurches forward at such an ADD rush, we have very little time to absorb life in the next half-century. So the kind of place-setting details that more imaginative directors would linger on – like 3D, motion-picture magazine covers and a restructured White House – are merely ornamental filigree in “Lockout,” the window-dressing that frames each exchange of clunky dialogue. It’s all videogame propulsion and no soul.
There is one futuristic detail that takes precedence, and it gives the film a shred of social commentary about the inhumanity of supermax prisons. The film is set largely inside such a prison, but in this case the inmates have been so shunned by society that they’re not even on our planet: The facility is located on a satellite, with the prisoners sedated in cryogenically sealed pods. Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace), the president’s daughter, arrives at the floating prison to investigate its dehumanizing conditions, which are said to create delirium and other nasty side effects. Naturally, things go horribly, horribly wrong; when the inmates take over the asylum, it’s up to Snow to save her.
What sounds potentially exciting is far from it, because every twist and turn is foreshadowed, eliminating any whiff of actual suspense. As the movie’s protagonist, Snow is a blocky repository of unfunny barbs, and Emilie is worse: a beautiful, inconsistently intelligent creature who is a tough-nosed muckraker one minute and a subservient, directionless hanger-on the next. A concoction of chauvinistic male writers, she is never believable.
“Lockout” eventually becomes a game of Spot the Influence. It’s “Escape From New York” without the intelligence, “Mission: Impossible” without the Byzantine plotting, “Die Hard” without the iconic lead, and “Con Air” without the ham. I never thought I would miss the sure hand of Michael Bay.