Film Review: The Numbers Station (MA15+) (USA, 2013)

The Numbers Station is a government conspiracy based thriller, revolving around a concept which should have been an easy sell for Danish Director Kasper Barfoed. Unfortunately, ambiguous story telling and poor character development leave this film with only a few redeeming features, which are so subtle, you could blink and miss them.

Emerson (John Cusack) is a burnt out special agent who is reassigned to protect Katherine (Malin Akerman) after a snap judgement call on his last job leads to tragic circumstances. Katherine is a code operator working in a top secret ‘Numbers Station’ remotely located in abandoned army barracks, reciting encrypted messages over untraceable radio frequencies. The station falls under siege during an unscheduled shift change, by a team of agents who ‘work for the other side’. So begins a cat and mouse game, where Emerson and Katherine fight for survival, as they attempt to unravel their unknown enemy’s agenda.

The concept of Numbers Stations is an intriguing one, made even more so by the government’s heavy denial of their existence. The story starts out predictably enough, with ‘an agent stuffs up a big assignment by letting an innocent witness get away’ scenario, followed by a psyche debrief and a heave ho from the agency out to the quiet countryside. The film spends a lot of time casually strolling down the middle of the road, making a slight detour when a spanner’s thrown into Emerson’s body guarding routine. It’s understandable that the plot is a little hazy in places to retain some mystery, but it just gets irksome when there isn’t enough information to make any sense of the how and why of events unfolding on the screen.

Cusack and Akerman are notable actors, but somehow the characters don’t quite fit and it’s not until later in story, when they discuss their behavioural traits as laid out in the agency’s files, that some understanding dawns on what they’re trying to convey. Katherine is portrayed as overly perky and unrealistically naive, a supposedly highly intelligent woman who is completely ignorant to the consequences of her job, whilst Emerson comes across as completely deadpan, even when struggling with his sense of morality.

The production itself mostly takes place in the cold, damp, dimly lit surroundings of the army barracks, leaving much to the imagination and whilst the action scenes add some life to the dull environment, shoot outs and explosions are few and far between. There are however, a few clever directive qualities, such as the ear ringing high pitched noise included post the first explosion, that makes the audience feel a part of the surroundings.

The subject of human worth is played around with quite a bit, Emerson’s boss talks about an article which states that the monetary worth of a cremated human in terms of minerals and metals is little more than $4.40. Agents are seen as disposable, tied to an all consuming, inescapable role, expected to kill in cold blood and then done away with when they become dysfunctional as a result of their detachment. This message is pumped into the undercurrent of the film quite often and unnecessarily, as it’s something the viewer could figure out quite easily pretty early on. These obvious preludes in the script tend to dampen any twists that pop-up along the way.

The Numbers Station is by no means an unbearable viewing experience, it ticks all the mandatory requirements of a psychological, suspense filled thriller. There just seems to be a lack of oomph and excitement, that would’ve turned quite an ordinary film into an extraordinary one.


The Numbers Station will be available on DVD through Eagle Entertainment from 24 July 2013


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