Punch-drunk and drained after the ferociously inventive Fight Club, David Fincher decided to keep it simple for his painfully anticipated follow-up: jump from generation-defining, rage-fuelled, Nietzsche-on-crack classic to zero-pretensions, woman-in-peril B-pic - - ducking impossible expectations of equalling his masterpiece by the smart expedient of, well, not even trying.
The shoot was strenuous, the box office buoyant, the critics divided. And, like The Game to Se7en, so this taut little thriller still sits in the shadow of its pugilistic predecessor. But taken on its own terms, it's a knockout. The übermensch makes way for supermom, as Jodie Foster transforms from fragile divorcee to raging bird of prey, defending her home and offspring (Kristen Stewart) from burglars (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto) who are by turns bungling and brutal. The three stooges are seeking cash stashed in the titular hotspot, a steel-cased, supposedly safe room where Foster and child sit scared watching CCTV: both sides stuck in a catch-22 that only blood can unlock.
Simplicity is the great strength of David Koepp's script, which boils down the plot and lets it simmer, keeping us claustrophobic inside one New York brownstone. Fincher's achievement is that this doesn't feel theatrical, his camera swooping (aided by mostly imperceptible CGI) through walls, floors and - in the most celebrated shot - the handle of a coffee pot. It makes for assured, almost overpowering style, stopping just short of being self-indulgent by dint of always driving the story forward.
Is there substance beneath the showing off? Perhaps not. While Panic Room is tense and funny, there's no Big Idea or emotional undertow. But given the director's ever-present theme of urban alienation, the dislocation of modern lives, do we really need to connect deeply with the characters?
This picture is a ride. Like pomposity-free Kubrick: pure, chilly and technically sublime. Hardly heavyweight, but a blast while it lasts.