It must be terrible getting lost in an unfamiliar place, especially if it’s in some foreign city where you can hardly speak the language and have no money to your name. What would be even worse is if the life you thought you had simply evaporated and you had no idea why. This is the premise of Unknown, a mediocre thriller that had the potential to be much better.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones), are in Berlin for a biotechnology summit. Harris makes a very normal mistake at the airport and forgets his briefcase, but on the way back to retrieve it, the cab that he’s in crashes and he is left in a coma for four days. Upon his recovery, he learns that his wife doesn’t recognize him and he has been replaced by another Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). With the help of the cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), the real Martin Harris goes on a quest throughout Berlin to resume his identity and find out why he lost it to begin with, but as always, there is a larger web of secrecy in play here than meets the eye.
The entire time I was watching this, I felt like I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. At first I was completely intrigued by the characters, the setting, and the plot, but I soon began checking to see how much time was left. I also realized that I’ve seen most of what would be defined as “major scenes” in other films before. It made the rising action, climax, and resolution a lot less exciting than it must have been anticipated.
Honestly, that is the main and one of the only detractions of Unknown. Why do people see a movie? To be entertained or enlightened. That’s the joy of them: being totally immersed in a fictional world created by the writer, the director, and everyone else working on the film. The movie loses its magic when clichéd conventions and overused tricks combined with unoriginal action overtake the originality of the movie.
Let’s be fair though. Unknown isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it exceeds in a place where a lot of other thrillers fail: style. The audience gets a very cold feeling while the action is outside, bu warmth while inside. It’s amazing how lighting tricks and post production really have a mental effect on the viewer. The camera and cinematography works beautifully against the German backdrop, but it also conveys a lot of emotion. For example, when Harris first realizes something is wrong, the camera slowly tilts to show that his mental state and reality are thrown off balance. You can see this example in the clip below.
The acting chops are also present in full force. Liam Neeson acts well and kicks ass as usual. Aidan Quinn plays menace and unassuming very well, which helps the audience wonder if he is the real Dr. Martin Harris. Diane Kruger does fine, but has a pretty stereotypical role unfortunately. Very far from the interesting Bridget von Hammersmark from Inglourious Basterds. Frank Langella has a small but satisfying part, but who I think steals every scene he is in is Bruno Ganz. We all know from Downfall that he is a fantastic actor, and I’m glad that I got to see him in another role. The only person who I felt was weak was January Jones who acted very plastically and was very unbelievable. The casting there could have been greatly improved.
Unknown could have been good. Hell, Unknown could have been great. What happens is that I have seen everything before in both the plots and the characters. I understand archetypal characters are important for audiences to connect with, but when they are exact copies of characters from other movies, then the film makers are just being lazy. The same can be said for the plot and the action. If you really want to watch this movie, then by all means. If you already aren’t that interested, skip it all together. Bottom line, it has potential, but ultimately isn’t successful.