The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 17, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Next

Originally posted 5/17/07
Full review behind the jump


: Lee Tamahori
: Screen story by Gary Goldman, screenplay by Gary Goldman and Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum, based on the story The Golden Man by Philip K. Dick
: Nicolas Cage, Todd Garner, Norm Golightly, Arne Schmidt, Graham King
: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschmann, Tory Kittles, José Zúñiga, Jim Beaver, Peter Falk

One of the tests many otherwise gifted actors can fail is to put over truly cockamamie material. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis can paint with his foot, but could he ever have lent conviction to
Superman the way Christopher Reeve did? Watch the uproariously vapid Man in the Iron Mask, as Gabriel Byrne squares up with dialogue like this: “I know to love you is a treason against France, but not to love you would be a treason…AGAINST MY HEART!”. When you realize how close he actually came to selling that stale fish of a line, the admiration is dizzying. You might even argue that the whole Star Wars universe only had a chance to transcend its roots because of some gravitas George Lucas rented from Alec Guinness.

is, if nothing else, a case study in this characteristic of movie star acting. The story is rankly absurd, but the sort of absurd we’re willing to buy if presented properly. And it stars Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore, two immensely gifted performers. Yet Cage, playing a ludicrous character, comes off looking ludicrous, while Moore, whose character is nearly as ludicrous, is convincingly intense. And the movie – well, the movie unfurls like an unambitious Twilight Zone episode that ends answering all the questions we don’t care about and precious few of the ones we do.

Consider this set-up – Cage plays Cris Johnson, who can see two minutes into his own future and is thus handy in a scrap, good at picking up girls (he knows which pick-ups will fail), and suspiciously lucky at the blackjack table. Knowing his gifts attract interest, he lives below the radar, performing cheesy stage magic in Vegas under the name “Frank Cadillac” and occasionally giving his funds a subtle boost at the casinos. It’s one of those Cage performances that leaves the story behind and becomes a zig-zagging celebration of its own peculiarity, he’s better when burrowing into material rather than bursting out of it.

Moore, meanwhile, plays Callie Ferris, an FBI agent who is part of a task force investigating an imminent nuclear terrorist threat against the United States. She believes that the most promising way to avert this disaster is, really, to go looking for people who can see into the future. Her colleagues point out frequently that, since they do not know if Johnson’s abilities are real, or if they can actually be put to use finding a bomb, maybe all this manpower would be better directed at, well, looking for the bomb. And yet her intense belief in her mission, her take-no-prisoners pragmatism, is so compelling we don’t spent nearly enough time thinking about how right they are. That’s the talent I’m talking about.

Both this picture and Minority Report are based on stories by master sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. Report, you’ll recall, had a riveting action sequence where Tom Cruise’s character kidnapped a “precog” and followed her cryptic advice (“pick up that umbrella!”) to elude the authorities. Next is like a 90-minute expansion of that premise, repeatedly spending lots of money to dazzle us with demonstrations of Johnson’s ability to frustrate pursuers and would-be assassins. He lives with the regular experience of being squashed, blown up or shot through the head before stepping back into real time and avoiding it. You’d think someone like that might be a little less goofball and more morbid than Cage plays him, all we get is that he likes martinis with breakfast. Does it dull his abilities? The movie takes no time to say.

It also takes no time to answer what is so special about Liz (Jessica Biel), the woman he keeps seeing in a vision. She is supposed to arrive in a certain diner on an unidentified day, and he is supposed to meet her, but he doesn’t know why. But for some reason, when she is involved he can see much further into the future, and so he yearns to find her. Biel is a photogenic and inoffensive screen presence, but as unconvincing as I always find her. I do not look at her and believe she could cast off my grip on the fourth dimension.

Mysteries like this, and Cris Johnson’s own opening narration, hint that there’s a much broader world to this time-vision than his simple two-minute preview trick. There may even be others like him out there. I suspected this as a possibility when the terrorists (a stock group of shadowy gun-wielders, serving no higher ideology than the need for someone to be the bad guy) took such an interest in Ferris’ attempts to enlist his aid. Why would they blindly buy in to such a reality-bending idea unless one of their own was similarly blessed? And wouldn’t that be a real test for Johnson for a change?

But it’s not the critic’s job to review the more interesting movie he imagines while watching a mediocre one. With Next I am stuck with a thought-provoking power the movie deliberately does not think very much about, and a menace that I can already get every week on 24 or from fear-mongering political speeches. It’s quite a world we live in now where the suitcase nuke has gone from inconceivable nightmare to exhausted manipulative cliché. Someone should have seen it coming.


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