Conspiracy Theory came with some big guns attached notably the on-screen pairing of Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, two of the decades top A-list stars. The director was Richard Donner who had come to fame in the 1970s with hits like The Omen (1976), Superman (1978) and the Mel Gibson starring Lethal Weapon (1987). (A list of Richard Donners other genre films is at the bottom of the page). Alas, while Richard Donner seemed a promising name during the 1980s, the 1990s and beyond have seen him lose his touch, turning out a series of forgettable works like Maverick (1994), Assassins (1995), Nick of Time (1995), Timeline (2003) and three Lethal Weapons sequels that turned the initially edgy franchise into something cute and cuddly.
Conspiracy Theory sells itself based on a certain idea a conspiracy theory crackpot finds that one of his theories is actually true as sinister government agencies start hunting him. Now there is a certain idea here no matter how slim (although one cannot help but think making fun of conspiracy flakes is akin to trying to make jokes about the mentally ill and intellectually handicapped). Unfortunately, the idea goes disastrously wrong. Conspiracy Theory should have been a paranoia comedy that juggles the flakiness with the spooky reality but the film ends up not only missing the joke by a mile but then taking the premise with an absurd seriousness. What starts out as a comedy-thriller poking fun at conspiracy theories ends up becoming a completely different film altogether where it is somehow turned into an A-budget action film with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts being pursued by SWAT teams and whisper helicopters. By the end of the film, after far-fetched revelations about Mel Gibson being a mind controlled assassin and cover-ups of the murder of the heroines father, Conspiracy Theory is no longer even about the same premise that one entered the theatre on.
Indeed, by the end of the film the comic riff on conspiracy thrillers has become entirely irrelevant to the main plot the sinister government agency is not even hunting Mel Gibson to silence him because one of his theories has come true as the publicity suggests but rather to either silence him because of or find out what he knows about the murder of Julia Roberts father. (It is difficult to tell which is the case, due to the fact that this exposition is being uttered by Gibson in a state of near mental collapse at the time). There is no explanation offered as to how a programmed assassin ended up working as a New York cab driver and a flaky conspiracy nut. In fact, by the end of the film, the original premise has been so absurdly overturned that the script is taking seriously ideas that it was earlier laughing at because of their absurdity NASA trying to kill people with satellites. Possibly this is one of the most confused films that one has seen in some time.
There are certain flashes of humour that hint at what Conspiracy Theory could have been notably the scenes in Mel Gibsons apartment with locked refrigerators and stored thermos flasks. The film gets at least one good joke out: Oliver Stone? Hes really a puppet of the Bush [Sr] government he knows too much to be kept alive. For all that, Conspiracy Theory is notably lacking in humour. Mel Gibson at least gets into the part, playing the cuddly wild-eyed lunatic role that he perfected throughout Richard Donners Lethal Weapon films again.
What Conspiracy Theory needed though was not to be treated as an A-budget thriller but a B-budget indie film. The idea needs a funkier approach. The model for this type of film is surely The Presidents Analyst (1967), which sent up the 1960s spy fad and paranoia craze with delirious deadpan. Of course, there was the original The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which in all likelihood had much influence on Conspiracy Theory, which balanced the notion of mind control and political conspiracy/satire with an hilariously black dexterity. However, Richard Donners approach here is a lazy mainstream effort where he seems confused between whether he is making a comedy or a straight thriller and lets all possibilities inherent in the films premise slip through his fingers.
Richard Donners other genre films are: the classic Anti-Christ film The Omen (1976), Superman (1978) and uncredited parts of Superman II (1980) (of which he released his own cut of the film in 2006), the fine Mediaeval romantic fantasy Ladyhawke (1985), the updated Dickens tale Scrooged (1988), the interestingly dark childrens film Radio Flyer (1992), the dull Michael Crichton-adapted time travel film Timeline (2003) and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006), his originally intended edit of Superman II (1980), which he had been removed from after much in-fighting with the producers. Donner also acts as producer on The Lost Boys (1987), the horror anthology tv series Tales from the Crypt (1989-96) and its two film spinoffs Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight (1995) and Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood (1996), Delirious (1991) about a writer trapped inside his own soap opera, the monster hunter film Matthew Blackheart (2002), and the comic-book adaptations X-Men (2000), Constantine (2005), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X: First Class (2011).
Brian Helgeland is a screenwriter who has written Richard Donners Assassins and other high-profile works such as L.A. Confidential (1997), Mystic River (2003), Man on Fire (2004), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) and Ridley Scotts Robin Hood (2010). Helgelands genre scripts include A Nightmare on Elm Street Part IV: The Dream Master (1988), 976-Evil (1988), Highway to Hell (1991), Kevin Costners The Postman (1997), Clint Eastwoods Blood Work (2002) and Cirque du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009). Helgeland has also directed Payback (1999), A Knights Tale (2001), the fascinating Catholic horror film The Sin Eater/The Order (2003) and the true-life 42 (2013) about the first Black baseball player.