The Trigger Effect (1996) — When the power goes out, people start getting weird

“Is it bad out there?”

Chad’s rating: The best advertisement for solar energy

Chad’s review: I’m one of those strange people that love an unexpected power outage. Suddenly you’re standing in the dark, wondering what to do with yourself. It’s a moment of rare freedom from our uber, wifi-connected world. Although, I would probably grab my iPhone and doom-scroll until the power switched back on. And that’s the thing; power failures can be fun because we assume the lights will eventually return.

But what happens if the power never comes back? And what if the outage isn’t just local but nationwide? How long would it take for our modern society, interconnected and dependent on electrically powered tech, to start crumbling? At what point would the lizard brain take over and a predatory environment begin to emerge?

These are the juicy themes of The Trigger Effect, the little-seen 1996 thriller from writer/director David Koepp. During the 1990s, Koepp was one of the busiest screenwriters in Hollywood, cutting his teeth writing or co-writing such blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. And he also helped script the infamous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but don’t hold that against him.

Like many a Hollywood writer, Koepp was eager to direct and got his chance with this fascinating but underwhelming potboiler. The Trigger Effect ended up being a film with a lot on its mind but fails to deliver an engrossing watch.

The plot is straightforward as we follow Matt and Annie Kay, an upper-middle-class couple with a feverish baby. It’s clear the couple is struggling as they realign their marriage around the demands of this new bundle of joy. But late into the night, the power grid falters, and everything goes dark. And not just in their neighborhood but the entire West Coast and beyond.

Soon, Matt’s trip to the pharmacy turns deadly as he tries to get medication to treat his sick child, forcing him to steal the meds. After a few days of the great outage, which include the phone lines, the couple is joined by family friend Joe. But the rakish Joe’s presence causes problems as he begins to flirt with Annie. After many more days of no electricity, things escalate quickly. The looting begins, followed by a break-in to Matt and Annie’s house by a drifter, who is brutally shot and killed by their creepy neighbor.

No longer feeling safe in their home as neighbors turn against neighbors, Annie insists they drive out to her parents in Colorado. Yet this perilous trip turns out to be a very bad idea when they are brutally carjacked, with Joe mortally wounded by gunshot. With his wife and baby stranded and his good friend slowly dying, Matt decides to break into a local farmhouse, hoping to get keys to the very nice-looking BMW parked in front. But he’s confronted with a single father protecting his young daughter, pushing Matt into morally grey territory. How far will he go to protect his family in this crazy new world?

In 1996 the idea of a massive power outage was a frightening prospect. The mass adoption of cell phones was still in its infancy, and most people still used their dial-up landlines to access America Online. When the power switched off, you were indeed out of luck. Just look at the aftermath of the 2005 Katrina Hurricane or the 2021 Texas winter storm to see how fast humanity can devolve when they are cut off from their electric-powered conveniences.

These are fascinating ideas for a great movie. And The Trigger Effect was clearly inspired by the Twilight Zone episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. In that classic episode, a typical 1950s-era neighborhood devolves into paranoia and fear over a power outage and a mysterious shadow in the skies.

Sadly, that Twilight Zone episode offers more twists and turns than the 94 minutes of this picture. Koepp wants to make a gritty indie-style thriller, but his mainstream tastes get in the way. A bold finale would’ve helped the film immensely, but instead it ends with the patented happy ending.

That’s a shame because the first 20 minutes are quite strong. Koepp has definite talent as a director, opening with a beautiful tracking shot through a shopping mall into a movie theatre. As we follow the camera, people bump into each other or cut in line to get popcorn, building a feeling of anxiety that something is about to be unleashed. The film expertly builds out Matt and Annie’s strain of dealing with a sick child and the new tension when the handsome Joe crashes at their home during the outage. The stakes are raised the longer the power is out, but the movie implodes once they take their ill-advised road trip.

The film is stacked with exciting actors in their ’90s prime. Kyle MacLauchlan makes for a goofy WASPy husband forced out of his comfort zone. Dermot Mulroney, who I always found underrated, is a smoldering counterpoint to MacLauchlan’s Matt. You can see why Elisabeth Shue’s Annie locks flirty eyes with Mulroney’s Joe. Speaking of Shue, this was when she was capitalizing off her Oscar-nominated performance in Leaving Las Vegas, where she radically reshaped her image. Her Annie is by far the most fascinating character, a sexy woman who’s not so sure she wants to settle for the domestic life with a safe husband and child.

It’s a frustrating film because there are several potent ingredients that never mix into a satisfying whole. I love that Koepp never reveals the source of the power failure or the widespread nature of the outage. In this situation, there’s an intimate chamber-piece tone where we get information as the characters would. But at the same time, none of these characters are particularly likable. You wish the cast were built out more, doing a Crash or Traffic-style ensemble following various characters during this tense situation.

I think The Trigger Effect is one of those movies primed for a remake or would make an excellent streaming mini-series. I remember the 2012 TV show Revolution had a similar premise, but that was just a sci-fi Hunger Games knockoff. There’s meaty material for a gritty commentary on how our society looks with no power and, even worse, the loss of satellite technology that fuels our interconnected world. As such, The Trigger Effect is a curious ’90s relic that doesn’t make much of an impact.

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