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Next (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 27 April 2007
“Next” is a erratically-paced action thriller that stretches its simple science fiction premise into a shape as complex as a fourth-dimensional pretzel, but the surprise at the end, though unpredictable, is set up cleverly. Like seemingly half the science fiction movies of the last twenty years, this is (very loosely) based on a story, “The Golden Man,” by Philip K. Dick. It’s certain that he’d be amused and baffled by the number of movies his unassuming but imaginative stories have spawned—and he’d be very happy to cash the checks the generate.

Nicolas Cage is Frank Cadillac, a two-bit Las Vegas lounge magician with mediocre patter but a surprising trait: he can see about two minutes into the future. His act is as clumsily built around that ability as the movie is. His real name is Cris Johnson; he took his stage name from two of his favorite things, Frankenstein and Cadillacs. He also occasionally visits the local casinos, using his ability to win at various games—but not to win so much that he draws undue attention.

However, that’s exactly what’s going on out of his view: the security chief (José Zúñiga) of Cris’ latest targeted casino is keeping an eagle television eye on him, with FBI agent Ferris (Julianne Moore) also watching, trying to figure out if her suspicions about Cris are true. There’s an amusing scene in which Cris, aware that the security chief has sent thugs after him, uses his limited precognitive powers to dodge all pursuers and elude them in a later car chase. When the movie is tearing along as it is here, director Lee Tamahori is right at home, and the whole thing is smoothly executed and very entertaining.

It’s less so when it slows down to present something of a plot, and also in the romantic scenes that result from Cris’ puzzlement over visions he’s been having of a young woman (Jessica Biel) coming into a coffee shop where he’s sipping a martini. Cris talks about this with his aging pal Irv (Peter Falk in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo); Cris doesn’t understand why his power, heretofore limited to a less than two minute glimpse of the future, works differently with this woman. And he—and we—never find out why this is happening.

He doesn’t know what day he’ll meet that woman, but he does know the time, so he keeps going to the diner just prior to that time, day after day. And finally one day she comes in. The movie has great fun with his viewing SEVERAL scenarios of the future; since he knows what can happen, he changes it, again and again, until he finds one that enables him to meet her. She’s Liz, who herself is in the process of discarding an unwanted boyfriend. By now, Cris is aware that he’s being pursued by the FBI—he had a future vision of Ferris stalking into his garage (or something) and confronting him. He even knows what she wants: she has (how?) learned of his abilities, and wants to use them to prevent the culmination of a plan she knows is in operation.
A group of vaguely-defined terrorists, or other bad guys (most of whom seem to be French) has smuggled a nuclear device into the United States and is planning to set it off in Los Angeles. Ferris wants Cris to use his powers to spot the bomb before it can be detonated. There are complications: the bad guys, led by “Mr. Smith” (Thomas Kretschmann), know the FBI is after Cris, though not exactly why, and plan to kill him before Ferris can make contact with the fleeing magician.

He’s persuaded Liz to give him a lift to Flagstaff, but on the way, they stop at a Havasupai Indian reservation where Liz teaches part-time. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this side trip other than to show the grandeurs of the location, which features a spectacular waterfall cascading into the Canyon. But that’s good enough—the wide screen vistas are eye-poppingly gorgeous, and help give the movie an open-air feel relatively rare in suspense films today.

The screenplay is credited to Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum, who seem to have all worked on it separately, not as a team. One clue is that Cris’ powers are inadequately explained though frequently demonstrated. It isn’t important to know where he got such abilities, but it would be useful to know how he USES them. Does he constantly see two minutes into the future? No, that’s clearly not what’s going on. So what IS going on? Can he will himself to see the future two minutes ahead? Or can he fine-tune it to see just a few seconds ahead? That is clearly what has to be going on in a spectacular downhill foot chase punctuated by tumbling trucks, donkey engines, wagons and logs. Cris manages to dodge everything in fractions of a second. Or does he close his eyes, then see everything laid out before him? Toward the end of the movie, he DOES frequently close his eyes and concentrate. In one mind-boggling sequence near the end, he seems to duplicate himself into many Nic Cages hustling about the bowels of the gigantic ship where much of the climax takes place. It’s not hard to accept the idea that each of them represents Cris investigating the various possibilities of the next two minutes, but since he never multiplied himself in earlier scenes, this is more bizarre than illuminating; you have to figure out what’s really going on without much help from the movie itself.

Midway through, the movie stops dead as Cris and Liz seek shelter in a motel and fall in love. On one side of the canyon outside, the FBI team led by Ferris keeps watch; on the other, a couple of bad guy snipers keep their telescopic sights trained on the motel door. And we have to sit and wait while things build up enough energy to start working themselves out. Once that happens, it’s clear sailing—there isn’t a slow moment from that point to the end of the movie. But it’s a stumble in the film’s pace.

This is the third movie so far this year to feature Nicolas Cage (the others: “Ghost Rider” and “Grindhouse”), and there are at least two more in the hopper. Cage is a hard worker and occasionally an excellent actor; he’s always sincere, always deeply committed to his roles, so much so that he not only often teeters on the edge of absurdity, he sometimes (as in “The Wicker Man” remake) tumbles over. But he’s always in there punching, and is generally fun to watch even when the role and movie are blowing up in his face.

There’s not very much to Cris Johnson; he’s a cheap magician, a piker of a gambler, and unconnected to anyone other than his pal Irv (and what HE does is anyone’s guess). We don’t see the machinery of his mind reset when he falls for Liz, partly because, due to his visions of her in the diner, he’s already a little in love with her before they even meet. There really isn’t enough time for Cage to build much of a character, so he relies on having lost enough weight to seem gaunt, giving him a somewhat haunted look. But the plot does require us to believe impossible things on his part from time to time. I can buy the two-minute precognitive abilities; what I can’t buy is a Las Vegas lounge magician beating the crap out of a lot of heavily-armed, well-trained soldiers as Cris does at one point—and this is mostly without relying on his power.

Jessica Biel is mostly along for the ride. She’s amusingly cranky in her first scene, but that trait is lost in the desert air as she gradually learns what Cris can do, and that he’s being chased by a lot of people. Toward the end, she spends most of her time a captive with explosives strapped to her torso.

The role of Ferris could have been, and possibly was, written to be played by a man; there’s nothing feminine about the character, even though she’s played by the attractive Julianne Moore. Ferris is a no-jokes tough agent, sympathetic enough to Cris’s problems to eventually work with, rather than merely through, him. Moore is always terrific, and she is here, too, but it’s not a role with a lot of shadings.

This limited precognitive power of the main character is demonstrated in many different ways, but it really isn’t something on which an action movie can be realistically hung. “Every time you look at the future,” Cris says, “it changes, and that changes everything, because you looked at it.” Sometimes this is cleverly demonstrated, as in the escape from the casino and the encounter with Liz’s ex-boyfriend. Sometimes it’s harder to relate to, as in the avalanche-of-everything-in-sight down the hillside below the motel. And sometimes it’s downright bizarre, as in the multiplied-Cris sequence near the climax. The effort to link this power to the action that Hollywood seems to think science fiction requires shows at time, and the movie suffers from the strain.

But overall, it’s an agreeable way to spend an evening. Paramount seems a bit nervous about it, having only limited press screenings, possibly because of the “Spider-Man 3” juggernaut looming on the horizon of next weekend. “Next” is something of a mess, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and may develop a certain following. It’s modestly amusing, it features Nic Cage looking tough, and has some spectacular action sequences. An okay movie for a Friday night.

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