“If you thought it was just a trick of the mind, prepare yourself for the truth,” promises the tagline for Déjà Vu. Yet if the movie’s fantasy premise purports to offer a potential general “explanation” for one of those nagging, inexplicable impressions we sometimes get, it isn’t so much the sense of something having happened before, but rather the creepy feeling that somehow, even in our most private moments, we are being watched.
True, Déjà Vu deals with timelines revisited, events seen and reseen from different points of view, and ultimately the growing sense that all of this has been before. Indeed, the film involves some of the most intricately interconnected time-bending plotting seen in years, with a tightly looped storyline that carefully sets up a long chain of dominoes that have already been toppled. “You don’t have to do this,” a character tells ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) at a critical juncture, to which he replies, “What if I already have?”
Even some viewers may have a feeling of déjà vu, what with odd bits of God talk and spiritual references juxtaposed with fingers being lopped off, duct-taped faces and prisoners with hands affixed to steering wheels, a kidnapped damsel in deadly distress, and deadly explosions, all in a hypercaffeinated Tony Scott thriller starring a sunglasses-wearing Denzel Washington, set in a down-and-out Mexican/Gulf area city, and featuring a quasi-Christological climax.
No, it’s not the odious Man on Fire all over again — fortunately, it’s quite a bit better than that. To begin with, this time it’s the bad guy blowing people up, which is always a good thing. Beyond that, Déjà Vu pursues its science-fiction conceit to some nifty places, including an extraordinary cross-temporal chase scene in which the hero must negotiate traffic in one timeframe while “following” a vehicle more than half a week in the past. Are you thinking fourth-dimensionally yet?
Responsible for all this is a top-secret FBI surveillance technology that — according to the official explanation offered to Carlin — reconstructs an on-the-fly virtual view of the recent past by synthesizing input from all available sources, from satellite photography to local security cameras, into a single, continuous roving image of life as it was four and a half days earlier.
Thus, when post-Katrina New Orleans is rocked by a terrorist bomb, the FBI sets up shop and starts combing through images of the days before the blast for clues. Although Carlin is a lowly ATF officer, an FBI agent named Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) admires his efficient detective work and recruits him to go over the surveillance images with them. “I need someone who can look at a crime scene exactly once,” Pryzwarra says, “and tell us what shouldn’t be there, what’s missing, what matters.”
He isn’t kidding about the “exactly once” part. Within their surveillance radius, the FBI team can see literally anything happening four days ago — even looking through walls, a bit like in Scott’s earlier Enemy of the State, thus allowing agents to peer in on the last hours of a murder victim named Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) as she changes clothes, showers and so forth. What? She has a date. Why shouldn’t she be half-dressed a lot?
All the time, though, the past marches on as relentlessly as the present, and there’s a complicated, possibly disingenuous technobabble explanation for why there are no do-overs, no rewinding, no fast-forwarding.
Carlin doesn’t mind the view of Claire’s boudoir, but he doesn’t necessarily buy the feds’ technobabble about how the chronoscope works — especially when Claire herself seems aware of something out of the ordinary. “Hello? Hello?” she calls uncertainly, looking around her room and then wandering out into the hallway. Later, she makes a note in her diary about “that weird ‘I’m being watched’ feeling.”
Uh oh. So, if I feel like someone’s watching me, maybe it’s crime investigators in the future trying to piece together what happens to me a few days from now? At least it looks like I don’t have to worry about déjà vu — not being a law enforcement official involved in a high-tech crime investigation.
Déjà Vu rides the razor’s edge between competing theories of time travel: Can the past really be changed? Or will anything you do in the past turn out to be just part of what already happened anyway? The filmmakers spin a slick, engrossing yarn and ratchet up the suspense effectively, but eventually they write themselves into a corner. At some point, they must choose between one ending that follows from everything we’ve seen, and another ending that gives viewers what they want. Neither is fully satisfying.
There just might be a way out of this dilemma, if the filmmakers were clever enough to find it. Somewhere along the line there needs to be a key turning point between one possible outcome and another, a domino set to fall one way that winds up tipping another, whether due to unpredictable human choices, or even the “divine intervention” (“something spiritual,” something “more than physics”) that the characters keep talking about.
Unfortunately, the film never finds that turning point, and a potentially mind-bending sci‑fi tour de force breaks down into a fairly conventional suspense thriller, with the hero racing against time to stop a killer before he strikes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and the film works well enough on that level. On the other hand, the opening terrorist attack on New Orleans perhaps still hits a bit too close to home, in more ways than one, to effectively set the tone for 90 minutes of escapist excitement.
There are other potential drawbacks. The voyeuristic scenes of Carlin and the FBI agents watching Claire in her apartment are milked to an over-the-top degree, with Claire constantly striking glamour-model poses and perpetually in various states of undress, even though she’s just hanging around her apartment. Carlin watches, entranced, with easy listening playing on the soundtrack. Even when we first meet her as a corpse on a slab, Claire is somehow presented as a sex object, a fixed expression on her face that hardly seems indicative of her ghastly death.
Then there’s the terrorist (Jim Caviezel), who turns out to be (spoiler alert) a Timothy McVeigh psycho-“patriot” who talks about “human collateral” and “the cost of freedom.” As with the neo-Nazi villains in the movie version of The Sum of All Fears, Hollywood’s taste in bad guys seems increasingly stale and artificial.
If it isn’t the brilliant film it could have been, Déjà Vu still contains enough flashes of that film to make it entertaining while you’re watching it. On reflection, though, it feels a bit like a shell game in which the conjuror himself has lost track of where the pea is supposed to be.
One thing you have to say about that FBI chronoscope surveillance technology: With its hyperkinetic, weaving, zooming point of view, it’s a plot device tailor-made for Scott’s jittery, overworked visual style. Never mind Doug Carlin: If the FBI ever really does invent a machine like that, they should call in Tony Scott to operate it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.