By Pete Vonder Haar | January 27, 2008

The internet will be the ruin of America, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

This, at least, appears to be the central message of “Untraceable,” a movie that – like “The Net” and “Hackers” and who knows how many others – goes out of its way to convince us that the road to hell is paved with hypertext. But merely luring people to their doom online (a la “Feardotcom”) is no longer enough, now the mere act of visiting a website (the catchy-sounding “killwithme.com”) makes one an active participant in the murder of some poor unfortunate kidnapped by the site’s webmaster and placed in a variety of “Saw” style Rube Goldberg death machines. The villain (revealed far too early to sustain menace) sets each contraption up so that as site visits increase, the mechanism of death is sped up. Finally, for all of us who found sites like Ogrish and rotten.com too tame, “Untraceable” presents us with the possibility of a truly interactive snuff film experience.

Leading the FBI’s investigation are Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), a cyber crimes specialist and single mother, and Griffin Down (Colin Hanks), the token nerdy analyst who looks like he got a note from his mom excusing him from training at Quantico. They and Portland detective Eric Box (Billy Burke) try to track down the killer, when they’re not musing about mankind’s fascination with death and violence (which is presented like some new phenomenon and not something that’s been around since the Punic Wars), that is. Inevitably, the killer sets his sights on Marsh, leading to a conclusion that’s one part female empowerment, one part thinly veiled industry warning to cyber criminals everywhere, and two parts “Batman” TV-series cliffhanger.

Computer movies have come a long way since the good old days of monitors projecting vector graphics on hackers’ faces, but there are still some forehead slappers in “Untraceable.” I mean, I may not know much about FBI protocols, but I’m pretty sure leaving sensitive files on a personal laptop with an open wireless connection is a no-no, especially for a computer security expert. And if the bad guy is so allegedly adept at his craft (he hacks into Marsh’s OnStar connection?), why would he have his website setup and servers in the same place he commits the murders? Last but not least, if I’m going to be lectured about humanity’s depravity and our fascination with suffering (both valid points), maybe the lesson shouldn’t be accompanied by slow-motion replays of a guy blowing his brains out or close-ups of bones sloughing flesh in a sulphuric acid bath.

But “Untraceable” isn’t just a half-assed indictment of our baser urges: it also wants to be a cautionary tale about the perils of cyber crime. For not only is an FBI field computer office depicted as a high-tech, “C.S.I.”-style wonderland (and not, more accurately, as a slightly less colorful version of a white-collar cube farm), but the film’s final ridiculous image – which I won’t spoil but desperately want to – might as well replace the green FBI warning we see on every DVD or VHS tape.

And then there’s Diane Lane. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you I’ve been smitten with Ms. Lane ever since my socially inept 14-year self saw her as Ellen Aim in “Streets of Fire.” I actually wrote an entire review, prior to this one, that was a parody of a celebrity stalker letter, which I subsequently trashed because my attempts to be funny were coming uncomfortably close to making me look like (more of) a creep. So I’ll simply say this: if I can forgive Lane for dating uber-douchebag Jon Bon Jovi, marrying Christopher “Highlander 2” Lambert, and making “Must Love Dogs,” I can forgive her this.

I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear it.

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