Many, many years ago, fresh out of film school, I was hired to write the script for a thriller about a computer programmer. Of course, I didn’t even own a computer at the time. This was back when the three dominant home computers were the Apple II, Radio Shack’s TRS-80, and the Commodore PET. The first IBM-PCs hadn’t quite hit the market; the Mac was just a gleam in Wozniak and Jobs’ collective eyes.

With time of the essence, my research staff (i.e. girlfriend) and I did the obvious: We invited a programmer friend over for dinner, plied him with wine and drugs, and asked him a bunch of questions. I’m pretty sure the script was, in terms of technical accuracy, sheer gibberish. But I figured that was OK, as long as it was gibberish that sounded right, since almost no one in the audience would know the difference.

There is a certain satisfaction in realizing that even now, 27 years later, the standards for such things seem to be no more rigorous – not if Untraceable is anything to go by. The difference is that nowadays there are a lot more people running around with a lot more knowledge about cyberstuff.

Diane Lane stars as Special Agent Jennifer Marsh, part of an FBI cyber-crimes unit in Portland, Ore. Jennifer is a widow, living with her mom (Mary Beth Hurt) and her 8-year-old daughter, Annie (Perla Haney-Jardine). Her best friend is workmate Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks, who, curiously, looks more like Stephen Colbert than poppa Tom).

We’re supposed to be rooting for Jennifer, Griffin and company, but within five minutes of their appearance, I hated them. Apparently they spend a lot of their time busting people for illegal downloads, which is sure to engender a lot of audience identification – on the wrong side.

We’re supposed to be sympathetic because Jennifer is a single mom and geeky Griffin is constantly striking out with chicks, but the only way to make them look good is to pit them against someone really maniacal. So director Gregory Hoblit and screenwriters Robert Fryvolent, Mark R. Brinker and Allison Burnett come up with a crazed Internet-based killer.

This guy (Joseph Cross) kidnaps people, seemingly randomly, and hooks them up to elaborate killing devices in his basement. (Think "Rube Goldberg meets Seven.") He streams the video online, making it clear that the devices’ deadliness will be determined by the number of hits the site gets. Ergo, the victims are killed by the fact that people want to watch; if nobody watches, they might survive.

Indeed, as heinous as the killer is and as complicit as the Internet audience is, the film has an annoying finger-wagging tone, as made explicit in such hack bits of dialogue as "When did the world go so fucking insane?"
Frankly, the makers of Untraceable have come up with an effective solution to the problem of Internet piracy: Make films that nobody would want to pirate.

Amid the pathetic January release schedule, an entertaining but hardly earth-shattering film like Cloverfield seems like a comparative masterpiece. This conceptual hybrid – call it The Blair Godzilla Project – is competent, occasionally inventive, and provides adequate, if less than profound, thrills.

The linear plot couldn’t be simpler: A gargantuan creature of unknown provenance is stomping the living crap out of Manhattan. We observe this entirely through a videotape shot by Hud (T.J. Miller), a twentysomething goofball who is at a farewell party for friend Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob is supposed to be leaving for Japan the next day, but he is hardly in a festive mood, having not resolved his nascent romance with best friend Beth (Odette Yustman).

Rob’s problems take on a lesser perspective when, 18 minutes into the movie, a huge earthquake-like jolt rocks the house. In no time flat, the Manhattan skyline is lit up with explosions, and the partygoers try to escape. As Hud continues taping, we accompany him, Rob, Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and Lily (Jessica Lucas) on their quest to rescue the trapped Beth and get the hell out of town.

Director Mike Reeves is smart enough to keep the proceedings short and sweet: Not counting the closing credits, the whole thing clocks in at 76 minutes. And, while the cinematography and editing are all determined by the storytelling gimmick, there is one really lovely, evocative image halfway through that seems to have wandered in from a different movie.

There are tons of implausibilities – like, man, does that camcorder battery hold a powerful charge! – but this is nightmare turf, so what do you expect? The one necessary caveat is that people who get nauseous from wobbly handheld camera may want to give this one a pass.  

Untraceable

Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross and Mary Beth Hurt. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. 100 min. Rated R.

Cloverfield

Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman. Directed by Matt Reeves. 85 min.
Rated PG-13.