“I thought that I could put together a found-footage type film…but with a twist. I wanted real terror and fear, as raw as possible, fear spawning from humans inflicting pain onto other humans, but without the crutch of the paranormal stuff,” director Simon Brand says in the press notes for “Default.” And especially coming in the wake of “Captain Phillips,” which utilized Paul Greengrass‘ shaky cam technique for a whole new level of immersion, Brand’s goals make a persuasive argument. And we can only imagine that the filmmaker’s enthusiasm is what nabbed the attention of rising star David Oyelowo (who features in “Interstellar,” “A Most Violent Year,” and “Selma” in the next few months) and “The L Word” and “Ray Donovan” actress Katherine Moennig. None of those actors could have been have drawn to the film’s script by Jim Wolfe Jr. and Dan Bence. What starts as an potentially intellectually stimulating thriller quickly succumbs to rote genre tropes that perhaps indicate that the screenwriters weren’t sure where to take their story.
The concept is simple enough and is executed with some cleverness. A ragtag American news crew, fronted by journalist Frank Saltzman (Greg Callahan), have just finished their latest job in the Seychelles, and are ready to take their privately chartered jet home. For reasons left unexplained, ACN, the network that sent them there, skimped on the budget despite flying the crew halfway around the world, and so the plane acquired seems to be held together on faith and duct tape. But before the plane takes off, a gang of pirates led by the level-headed but deadly Atlas (Oyelowo) commandeer the craft, and cameras are rolling. On the ACN side, Peter (Connor Fox) has been filming the whole trip, while the pirates seem to be putting together a crude training video. But Atlas has another motive for all the footage he’s shooting, and he insists that Peter keeping rolling and sets up more cameras in the cabin — he wants it all shown on ACN, along with an interview with Saltzman himself.
It’s at this moment where “Default” finds itself in a make or break situation, and for a brief second, it hinges on something compelling. Pulling Frank into a separate part of the plane, Atlas sets them up at a table, completely mic-ed and with two camera on tripods, so they can record the interview segment he wants to be seen around the world. The pair begin their discussion, which touch upon the nature of fear, the definition of terrorism versus piracy, sensationalist media, and more. And this is given an added texture by the fact that Saltzman, a once celebrated and serious newsman now stuck doing puff pieces, has the story of his career in his lap. It’s an interesting power dynamic, but Wolfe Jr. and Bence won’t commit to it, and instead drive the plot toward hokey captor/captive tests that no hijackers would waste time on if they had the military right outside.
As you might expect, the best known actors here keep this film watchable long past the time it deserves. Oyelowo runs circles around everyone, which unfortunately that includes Callahan, who simply can’t match the actor’s intensity. Meanwhile, Moennig is too good of a presence to be relegated to a supporting role, although it says something that even with such a thin piece of material, she still leaves a strong impression. As for the rest of the cast, they are mostly slotted into archetypal roles, with Atlas’ henchmen rounded out with a nervous and scared kid on his first hijacking run, along with two trigger-happy partners who would rather negotiate with stronger tactics. Meanwhile, the ACN crew has a requisite know-it-all-hero and….well, not much else besides the aforementioned players, and a character played by Jeanine Mason who doesn’t get much to do for most of the movie except cower and cry.
Despite its flaws, a more than apparent low budget, and an ambition that outreaches its capabilities, “Default” remains respectable until the third act completely unravels into a mess of twist reveals and nonsensical action, deflating whatever tension the picture had. It’s a true mess, one that strains believability while undercutting whatever investment we might have had in the characters, while also unintentionally highlighting that there wasn’t much there to start with. “Default” wants a ponderous, thought provoking ending, but simply doesn’t earn it. There is a better, more contemplative movie to be made with this material, but with Brand and the filmmakers opting for cheap thrills, it leaves the movie, like the passengers on the plane, stuck on the tarmac. [C-]