Somewhere deep down in the guts of 'The Numbers Station,' there is an incredibly interesting, thoughtful, and entertaining film about boredom and the monotony of the daily grind, mixed in with more compelling elements about guilt and the blind complicity required of those working in clandestine operations. Most of these elements are present in the opening moments of the film, just lying there, waiting to be used – which is why it's an utter shame that writer F. Scott Frazier and director Kasper Barfoed were unable to dig past the surface of their story in order to find something more than a rote action film with hints of black ops conspiratorial claptrap.
After botching his latest assignment, leaving two innocent people dead – one of which, strangely, is 'Skins' and 'Game of Thrones' star Hannah Murray, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her role – CIA black ops assassin Emerson Kent (Cusack) is shipped off to a secret government installation, to guard Katherine (Malin Akerman), a code operator whose job it is to deliver highly classified, encrypted messages to agents in the field.
The team works in 70-hour shifts, broadcasting coded messages from the cavernous depths of a highly fortified bunker that looks like a relic from the Cold War. When their shift ends, they hand the keys to the bunker over to another guard/broadcaster duo clearly using the bunker as a crash pad for their non-work-related dalliances. Emerson and Katherine return to begin their next shift with the kind of reluctant submission that helps keep the majority of workers actually employed. But this time something's different. Instead of the two lovers greeting them at the huge blast doors of the bunker, casually avoiding any acknowledgement of their tryst, Emerson and Katherine are fired upon by a sniper, which leads them to the gruesome discovery that the numbers station has been compromised, their colleagues murdered and several coded messages have been sent, giving several agents false orders.
As is usually the case in regard to films like this, the more opaque the circumstances surrounding the narrative, the more intriguing much of it turns out to be. Unfortunately, rather than create mystery, 'The Numbers Station' shows the audience it's hand at nearly every turn, underlining the implication of events by cheating the story and providing detailed past information that no character could possibly have. Most of this is handled through Cusack and Akerman's characters attempting to piece together the last 70-hours through the stream of audio recordings made in the bunker for obvious security reasons. The problem is that after the story goes to significant lengths to establish the fact that the security cameras placed throughout the bunker are disabled, leaving the characters to solve a mystery they can only hear, but not see, the movie just shows the recorded events as they took place – giving a whole host of details to the audience they don't need, while simultaneously obliterating any of the plot's actual intrigue and mystery.
In an effort to compensate, 'The Numbers Station' attempts to insert intrigue through a will-he-or-won't-he scenario in which Emerson is ordered to terminate Katherine by an unknown, but supposedly important individual, speaking to him over the bunker's only working phone connection. For this situation to work it requires the audience to not only recognize Akerman's character is in danger, but also to care about her well being. But the script is so preoccupied with providing the viewer with information they don't really need about characters no longer integral to the plot at hand that Katherine ultimately winds up being even more of a cipher than the guy who likely had any record of his existence erased to become a killer for the government.
At this point the plot morphs into a standard closed-door thriller, playing up the moral choice that Emerson has on his hands, while attempting to fascinate the audience with questions of who is trying to break into the numbers station and why. As far as ratcheting up the suspense through a sense of claustrophobic paranoia, 'The Numbers Station' comes very close to succeeding, but certain pacing decisions mostly derail this aspect in favor of resolving the plot by pointing the finger at unspecified culprits and providing a hackneyed solution to the characters' conflicts.
Despite having recognizable stars in Cusack and Akerman, along with a brief but important supporting role by Liam Cunningham, 'The Numbers Station' never manages to make much use of its actors. Instead, it saddles them with underdeveloped characters and then places them in a twisty plot that winds up going off in several different directions, leaving the film fractured and the conclusion wafer thin.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Numbers Station' is a single 25 GB disc from RLJ Entertainment. The disc comes in the standard keepcase, with an outer sleeve featuring the same cover art as the case. There are a handful of preview prior to reaching the top menu, which can be skipped.
Although it has a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, 'The Numbers Station' has a rather sub par picture that plays up the dour confines of the film's setting, but winds up taking it so far as to make the entire image appear murky and diluted. Of course, there is the question of whether or not this was an intentional move on behalf of the filmmaker and his director of photography, who, in this case was Ottar Gudnason, but certain scenes where the image actually appears to double and become too hazy decidedly point to "No."
The image is so muddy and dim that at times the idea of texture and fine detail in faces, clothing or backgrounds becomes totally moot. Occasionally, there are some scenes where, in close-up, the actors manage to come across like high-definition representations of themselves, but that only highlights the general inconsistency of the rest of the image. Moreover, there are scenes like the one between Cusack and his CIA "therapist" where the woman in question is surrounded by something akin to a halo effect, which actually borders on a double image.
Contrast levels are fairly low throughout, darks seem to bleed across the image and whites never get the opportunity to light up, let alone bloom. Additionally, as many scenes take place in low light environments or the dead of night (as is the case of the third act), the image is awash in extraneous grain and a significant loss of fine detail.
All in all, this is a disappointing transfer on a film that could have used a few more positives as a selling point.
While the image was nearly a complete misfire, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track manages to deliver sharp sound that highlights the dialogue while making the most of the characters' claustrophobic surroundings and the numerous gunfights and explosions that take place.
Dialogue is primarily directed through the center channel speaker and all the characters are easily understood, regardless their accents. Additionally, sound effects have been balanced quite well with the actors' voices, which results in an even, consistent listening experience which marries several audio elements together in a very natural sounding manner that still manages to be properly cinematic at times. In that regard, gunshots ring out with a loud punch that echoes nicely in the rear channels, accentuating the confined space much of the movie takes place in, while the presence of other atmospheric noises further heightens the sense of location that is so important to the storyline.
With a good mixture of surround effects, LFE, and general clarity when it comes to dialogue, the mix on 'The Numbers Station' manages to perform well and offer up a fairly decent listening experience that should enhance what is otherwise a rather banal film.
'The Numbers Station' is another peculiar example of mostly well-known actors appearing in films that appear to be of a lower caliber and are destined to go DTV. Sometimes, this kind of acting decision has become known as a "swimming pool" movie, where the impetus for appearing in a film like this is to pay for some extravagance such as a swimming pool. In this case, however, it feels more like Cusack and Akerman may have wound up with month long passes good at any Los Angeles YMCA. While the disc has a sub par picture and practically nothing in terms of extras, the sound does manage to deliver. This one won't leave anyone intrigued, but its brisk pace and recognizable stars might be enough to justify a rental.