A locked room mystery for the web generation, the British film Panic Button puts four strangers in an enclosed space and then proceeds to reveal their darkest web-surfing obsessions. Everybody has secrets, sure, but the casual openness of the internet has a way of drawing out the deepest of your closet skeletons. Cause no one’s watching, right? If you’re racist, perverted, or cheating, your browsing history will be the first to know, but as long as you clear the cache and cover your tracks, who’s ever gonna find out?
The four strangers in Panic Button have won a trip to New York courtesy of all2gethr.com, a popular social networking site that serves as a fairly obvious stand-in for Facebook. As they arrive at their posh private jet, the winners are informed that a competition will take place onboard the plane during the 6-hour flight to the States. There are big time prizes to be won, but in order to participate, the group must relinquish their cell phones before boarding. Completely high on Free Vacation Euphoria, they agree and hand ‘em over.
Once on board, they are greeted by a deep male voice coming through the plane’s P.A. system. After welcoming them to the game, the voice proceeds to ask quiz questions based on the information they provided to all2gethr.com. The strangers answer based on the information in their profiles, but the voice calls them out on their internet façade bullshit, revealing the true answers in a condescending British baritone. The balding smooth-talker who gropes all the ladies? He’s got a predilection for freaky-ass porn. The woman who filled out an online sex quiz with kinky responses? She’s actually a virgin. It’s like a demented game of truth-or-dare, with the World Wide fucking Web as your opponent.
During its first 30 minutes, Panic Button is loads of queasy fun, as the game actors squirm their way through several pleasantly uncomfortable scenes. There’s a demented enjoyment to be had in watching characters writhe under the weight of heightened embarrassment, their worst moments exposed for a handful of strangers to see. But as the game in Panic Button begins to grow increasingly threatening, the plot pushes the boundaries of plausibility to their breaking point.
Not only are the four strangers trapped in the private jet by a baritone-voiced madman, but the TV screens in the cabin depict their friends and family members being bound and gagged by ski-masked thugs. If the contestants break the rules or refuse to participate, their loved ones will be punished accordingly. Employing this new level of manipulation (as well as some private time with each character in the plane bathroom), the baritone voice begins to turn the members of the group against each other, and the movie begins to lose traction. It’s hard to believe that four somewhat normal people would be driven to murder within the first 2 hours of a plane ride, no matter what the circumstances. With the openly deceptive nature of hidden camera prank shows and reality TV competitions, who really takes any of this shit seriously? Are you really willing to thunk a hatchet into some stranger’s head after viewing grainy video of your mum tied to a chair? Virtually anything can be faked these days.
Under the strength of its earlier moments, Panic Button carries your attention all the way to its somewhat underwhelming twist ending, but when compared to something like The Killing Room––a superior film with a similar premise––it simply isn’t up to snuff. The result is a lame cyber-bullying metaphor disguised as a mildly diverting Brit B-flick.