Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Richard Donner|
|Produced by||Richard Donner|
|Written by||Brian Helgeland|
|Music by||Carter Burwell|
|Edited by||Kevin Stitt|
Frank J. Urioste
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$137 million|
Conspiracy Theory is a 1997 American political action thriller film directed by Richard Donner. The original screenplay by Brian Helgeland centers on an eccentric taxi driver (Mel Gibson) who believes many world events are triggered by government conspiracies, and the Justice Department attorney (Julia Roberts) who becomes involved in his life. The movie was a financial success, but critical reviews were mixed.
Conspiracy-theorist and New York City taxi driver Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) continually expounds his ideas to Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a lawyer at the Justice Department. She humors him because he once saved her from a mugging, but is unaware he spies on her at her home. Her own work is to solve the mystery of her father (Bert Remsen)'s murder. Seeing suspicious activity everywhere, Jerry identifies some men as CIA workers, follows them into a building, and is captured. The interrogator injects a wheelchair-bound Jerry with LSD and questions him using torture. Jerry experiences terrifying hallucinations and flashbacks, panics, and manages to escape by incapacitating the interrogator by biting his nose and kicking him.
Later, after being captured again, Jerry is handcuffed to a hospital bed and forced into a drug-induced sleep. Alice visits, and Jerry persuades her to switch his chart with the criminal in the next bed or he will be dead by morning. When Alice returns the next day, the criminal is dead, allegedly from a heart attack. The CIA, FBI and other agencies are there, led by CIA psychiatrist Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), whose nose is bandaged. Meanwhile Jerry fakes a heart attack and escapes again and hides in Alice's car. The pair go to her apartment and Jerry accidentally reveals he's been watching her. Jerry confronts FBI agent Lowry (Cylk Cozart) and his partner staking out her place, and he warns them at gunpoint not to hurt her. Jerry sees their operatives rappelling down from black helicopters and hides in a theater, escaping by causing a panic.
Alice calls each person on Jerry's newsletter mail-list and finds that all have recently died, except one. Jerry uses a ruse to get her out of the office, and then immobilizes the operatives watching her. During their escape he tells her that he fell in love with her at first sight, then flees on a subway train when she brushes off his feelings. She goes to see the last surviving person on the subscription list, and finds it is Jonas. He explains that Jerry was brainwashed during Dr. Jonas' time with Project MKUltra to become an assassin, and claims that Jerry killed her father. She agrees to help find Jerry, who sends her a message to meet him. He ditches the agents following them with a pre-arranged car transfer, and he drives her to her father's private horse stables in Connecticut, but meanwhile Alice secretly calls her office so that Jonas can track her phone. At the stables, Jerry remembers that he was sent to kill her father, but found he could not and had become his friend instead. Jerry tells Alice that he promised to watch over her before the judge was killed by another assassin. Jonas' men capture Jerry, and a sniper tries to get Alice, but she escapes.
Meanwhile, Alice finds Lowry and forces him at gunpoint to admit that he is not FBI, but from a "secret agency that watches the other agencies". He says they have been using the unwitting Jerry to uncover and stop Jonas. Alice goes to the site of the smokestacks from Jerry's mural and sees a mental hospital next door. There she hears and talks to Jerry through a vent, and an attendant she had bribed shows her up to an unused wing. She breaks in and finds Jerry. As Jonas catches them, Lowry arrives with his men and attacks Jonas' men. Jerry attempts to drown Jonas, is shot by Jonas from under the water, and Alice, who has regained consciousness after being knocked out, shoots Jonas six times. After killing Jonas, Alice tells Jerry that she loves him before he is taken away in an ambulance. Some time later, a grieving Alice visits Jerry's grave and leaves a pin that he had given her. She returns to riding her horse that she had stopped riding after her father's murder. While watching Alice from a car with Lowry, Jerry keeps to his agreement to not contact her until all of Jonas' other subjects are caught. As they drive away singing "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", Alice finds the pin she had left at Jerry's "grave" attached to her saddle, and smiles as she continues riding.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 56% based on reviews from 43 critics. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin said, "The only sneaky scheme at work here is the one that inflates a hollow plot to fill 2¼ hours while banishing skepticism with endless close-ups of big, beautiful movie-star eyes ... Gibson, delivering one of the hearty, dynamic star turns that have made him the Peter Pan of the blockbuster set, makes Jerry much more boyishly likable than he deserves to be. The man who talks to himself and mails long, delusional screeds to strangers is not usually the dreamboat type ... After the story enjoys creating real intrigue ... it becomes tied up in knots. As with too many high-concept escapades, Conspiracy Theory tacks on a final half-hour of hasty explanations and mock-sincere emotion. The last scene is an outright insult to anyone who took the movie seriously at its start."
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly graded the film B- and commented, "Richard Donner ... switches the movie from a really interesting, jittery, literate, and witty tone poem about justified contemporary paranoia (and the creatively unhinged dark side of New York City) to an overloaded, meandering iteration of a Lethal Weapon project that bears the not-so-secret stamp of audience testing and tinkering."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle stated, "If I were paranoid I might suspect a conspiracy at work in the promoting of this movie--to suck in audiences with a catchy hook and then give them something much more clumsy and pedestrian ... Conspiracy Theory can be enjoyed once one gives up hope of its becoming a thinking person's thriller and accepts it as just another diversion ... When all else fails, there are still the stars to look at--Roberts, who actually manages to do some fine acting, and Gibson, whose likability must be a sturdy thing indeed."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times observed the film "cries out to be a small film--a quixotic little indie production where the daffy dialogue and weird characters could weave their coils of paranoia into great offbeat humor. Unfortunately, the parts of the movie that are truly good are buried beneath the deadening layers of thriller cliches and an unconvincing love story ... If the movie had stayed at ground level--had been a real story about real people--it might have been a lot better, and funnier. All of the energy is in the basic material, and none of it is in a romance that is grafted on like an unneeded limb or superfluous organ."
In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers said, "The strong impact that Gibson makes as damaged goods is diluted by selling Jerry as cute and redeemable. Instead of a scalding brew of mirth and malice, served black, Donner settles up a tepid latte, decaf. What a shame--Conspiracy Theory could have been a contender."
Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film "a sporadically amusing but listless thriller that wears its humorous, romantic and political components like mismatched articles of clothing ... This is a film in which all things ... are treated lightly, even glibly ... One can readily sympathize with ... the director's desire to inject the picture with as much humor as possible. But he tries to have it every which way in the end, and the conflicting moods and intentions never mesh comfortably."
In his 2003 book A Culture of Conspiracy, political scientist Michael Barkun notes that a vast popular audience has been introduced by the film to the notion that the U.S. government is controlled by a deep state whose secret agents use black helicopters -- a view once confined to the radical right.
Conspiracy Theory was released August 8, 1997 to 2,806 theaters, and had an opening weekend gross of $19,313,566 in the United States. The film opened at number 1 in the U.S., displacing Air Force One. The film eventually grossed $75,982,834 in the U.S. and $61,000,000 internationally, for a worldwide total of $136,982,834. This final gross made Conspiracy Theory the 19th highest-grossing film in the U.S. in 1997.