2007, PG-13, 96 mins.
Chris Johnson: Nicolas Cage / Callie Ferris: Julianne Moore / Liz: Jessica Biel / Mr. Smith: Thomas Kretschmann
Directed by Lee Tamohori / Written by Gary Goldman and Jonathon Hensleigh / Based of the short story "The Golden Boy" by Phillip K. Dick.
If I had the ability to see two minutes into the future, then I certainly think that I would never have a problem hooking up with women.
Just think about it.
Remember all of those times that you have approached an attractive member of the opposite sex only to be instantly shut down. Maybe it was something you said, or a subtle physical gesture. Yet, if you could see what was to occur right before it happened, then you would have no issue with doing the absolutely right thing to win over a girl’s affection. After all, since you’d be able to gage her sensibilities with your “gift", you would never make a social mistake.
There is a nifty little scene in the new sci-fi thriller NEXT that illustrates how incredibly convenient it would be to have the ability to see things two minutes before they happen. Las Vegas magician Chris Johnson, aka Frank Cadillac, has the power to see the future, albeit his own and only a few minutes ahead of time. One day he goes to a coffee shop and orders breakfast. He’s not there to eat, but rather to meet the woman that he has had visions of, in this case Liz (played by the remarkably easy on the eyes Jessica Biel). What then occurs is fascinating. We get glimpses of Chris’ botched courtship attempts before they actual occur. We see the future that he does. This only accentuates the marvelous power that Chris possesses. He is able to fine-tune his wooing of Liz to the point where he’ll never miss one beat. Because he knows how she’ll react, he is able to calibrate his approach. For any single man looking for love, that’s supreme power.
NEXT takes its inspiration from a 1954 Phillip K. Dick short story called THE GOLDEN BOY. Like many films inspired by Dick, NEXT is faithful in terms of tone and themes, if not widely divergent in terms of plot details and characters. There have been many stunning translations of Dick’s work (BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL, MINORITY REPORT, and A SCANNER DARKLY) as well as many inconsistent and lackluster efforts (PAYCHECK and IMPOSTER). NEXT sort of falls curiously in the middle of the spectrum.
The film has the difficult task of finding a new a fresh twist on an oftentimes-overused cinematic element – time travel – and it makes it intriguing and gripping. The concept of a man that can see things directly before they happen is compelling enough and many of the opening sequences of NEXT do a good job of showing how this talent affects his life. Unfortunately, the film is a bit negligible in terms of what it does with the premise.
As far as thrillers go, NEXT opens with incredible promise and intrigue and unfortunately gets bogged down in a rather dull and tedious action spectacle. The set up for the film held great prospects for the rest of its running time, but the final third of it is where NEXT looses ground. Perhaps it could have been vastly more interesting if it focused more on the quieter moments of Chris’ life and how his gift is both a blessing and a curse. For example, opening moments show him winning thousands of dollars at Vegas card tables are terrific (which would be the most idealized way to use this power for financial gain; sports betting would be off if you only have a two minute window), as is his escape from the casino when the pit crew thinks he’s cheating. The way he is able to successfully elude the authorities is ingenious; he is always one two-minute step ahead of them. Then there is the small scene in the coffee shop with Biel that is equally absorbing.
Beyond those moments, NEXT kind of languishes around in a pseudo-24 inspired terrorist plot where the FBI hopes to capture and secure Chris so they can use his gifts in order to stop a group of nuclear-armed mercenaries. Now, that angle could have captivated, but NEXT does such a crummy job realizing the villains that it makes it difficult for us to root for the hero. Also, the characters of the FBI agents that are hot on the heels of Chris are also rather sketchily developed. The material here could have made for a much more absorbing and thought-provoking sci-fi auctioneer. The best Dick film adaptations had those assets. NEXT offers up a juicy introduction and many sly moments, but does not do much beyond that. It’s a would-be thought-provoking and challenging sci-fi without the intelligence. Not only that, but the film offers up a cringe-worthy final act plot twist that just may inspire film audiences to ask for their money back.
At least Chris (as played by the unusually subdued and collected Nicolas Cage) is an appealing protagonist. The film wisely does not get into a lot of expositional posturing with how Chris received his remarkable power. Instead, NEXT just begins by telling us that he simply has the power, which is for the better. His short-term invincibility is quite a gift, which allows him to escape death more than a fair share of times. He is amazing in his night gig as a magician – the difference with him being that the illusions are real. He also supplements his income by cheating the Casinos, which proves to be incredibly effective (security personal don’t honestly have a clue how he is able to beat the dealer so many times). Other more potentially grizzly moments - like a near death head on car collision with a train - are avoided because of Chris’s abilities as a future-seer. Undeniably, Chris is kind of unstoppable. Even in a fistfight no one can lay a punch on him; he knows where and when they’ll strike before they do.
There is one oddity to his powers: He is only able to see beyond two minutes ahead, but it differs only when it involves a beautiful stranger, Liz (Biel). He has been having visions of her for quite some time and knows that – one day – he will meet the woman of his dreams in a diner. The precise day and time he does not precisely know, but the location is assured. As a result, Chris frequents the diner on a daily basis, asks for the same seat and orders the same meal in hopes of meeting Liz. One day, he does and with his power he is able to secure a meet-cute that any single man would want to have with Jessica Biel. Within no time, Chris manages to make Liz fall for him in a big way. His life is working out perfectly, just as he hoped.
Yet, Chris' pitch-perfect romance with Liz is cut short. European terrorists (led by Thomas Kretschmann) have stolen and 10-kiloton nuke and plan to blow one US city sky high. The FBI, lead by special agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore, mostly going through the motions) tries to stop them before they can destroy a city and kill millions. Ferris discovers Chris’ very unique strengths and ends up going on two manhunts: one for the bombers and one for Chris. However, trying to apprehend a man that can see the future is very, very tricky, and Chris is able to effectively elude capture many times. Ferris thinks that Chris can see further into the future than he lets on and – as a result – thinks that he is the key to avoid nuclear war. Chris does not think so, but when Ferris makes things personal and Liz's life is left in the balance, he decides to cooperate with the government in hopes to stop the terrorists and save Liz.
Again, NEXT is a sci-fi film that germinates patiently and confidently at the beginning. The film is a very oddball and wacky amalgamation of some of the better elements of past time-bending thrillers like THE DEAD ZONE, MEMENTO, and more recently DÉJÀ VU and PREMONITION. The beginning of the film works, and Chris is ultimately a fairly layered character in the sense that he has been granted extraordinary powers but – because of them – he can’t lead a normal life. There is a hint of melancholy and sadness to Cage’s performance. All he wants is a life of normalcy, but events soon spiral beyond his control.
There is a chilling little montage – which is a clear homage to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – where Chris is strapped in a chair with his eyelids forced open in order to watch news footage on local TV at FBI headquarters. He is forced to watch the broadcasts until he can see anything in the future that would detect the time of the terrorist attack. Moments like that are creepy and effective, and I also liked the dynamic between Ferris and her pursuit of both Chris and the villains. It would be easy to paint Ferris as a second antagonist in the film (she abuses Chris' civil liberties for the sake of her cause) but maybe she has a point. If a man existed that could see the future, what rights should he have? If he failed to cooperate with tracking down...say...Osama Bin Ladden, should he be forced to assist?
The real problems with NEXT are with the paper-thin villains and the equally uninspiring story developments. The terrorists themselves are never threatening or captivating bad guys (often, we have to remind ourselves of who they are and what how they relate to one another). Some of the other characters, like Biel’s love interest, and hastily engineered into the story (her very quick willingness to believe in Chris and his gifts – not to mention fall in love with him - is simply not believable).
Some of the action sequences and effects are wildly inconsistent. NEXT was helmed by Lee Tamahori, a New Zealand filmmaker who made DIE ANOTHER DAY, MULHOLLAND FALLS, and ONCE WERE WARRIORS. He films some of the more visceral sequences of NEXT well (one montage showing Chris' patrol of a warehouse looking for hiding terrorist is slick), but many of the other larger, effects heavy scenes look unpolished and weak. One moment of a car nearly missing a freight train looks horrendously fake and even some simple shots (looking outside car windows, for example) use such obviously phony front projection. The visuals, along with the story, leave a lot to be desired.
NEXT is yet another Hollywood retelling of a classic Phillip K. Dick story that is too smart and gripping to be labeled as dumb and disposable sci-fi, but is also too riddled with story inconsistencies and contrivances to be hailed as landmark adaptation. The film uses its fascinating premise of a man that can foresee two minutes of his own future to interesting effect, but it allows for that to occupy a dissatisfying plot involving terrorist and the a FBI manhunt. The film is a really perplexing concoction of wickedly implausible plot developments with low-key drama mixed with flashy and spirited action sequences. What emerges is a mildly diverting, somewhat entertaining, but ultimately thin sci-fi thriller that never garners much mileage out of its ingenious premise. The film is noteworthy in the way it comments of the emotional brevity and moral consequences of someone that can see the future, but when you mix those type of insightful themes with conventional action scenes and tedious characters, then it just implodes on itself. With some tweaking, NEXT could have been in the upper echelon of expertly crafted and thoughtful Dickian sci-fi films. It just too bad that it simply falls short.