Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
DEJA VU (2006)
I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen this before… oh, wait, because I have. For all the comedy points, the only film I had to watch both last year (because it’s by the same director as Top Gun, Tony Scott) and this year (because it involves time travel) is coincidentally titled Deja Vu. Denzel Washington IS Denzel Washington AS Doug Carlin, an ATF agent who is just the best at crime scene investigating. After a horrific terrorist attack on a boat in New Orleans, Doug is out detecting when he’s approached by Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who’d like him to come check out a secret project that allows one to see any location on Earth four days in the past. Is it just some implausibly good surveillance equipment like in Enemy of the State, or is it something else?
It’s something else.
Don’t say “spoilers,” I wouldn’t be reviewing it if there wasn’t any time travel.
This movie has a lot of twists and turns. Some of them are the best thing I’ve ever seen in a time travel movie, and some of them are the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in any movie.
Get ready to scream, “Computers don’t work that way!”
I’m going to save anything really spoilery for the Other Stuff section, because I legitimately respect the story they tried to tell here. Unfortunately, they were telling two at the same time. Something got muddled in the writing process and nobody realized that certain time travel rules didn’t work with other time travel rules. Maybe that stuff doesn’t bother you, but around here, we like rules.
“But Billlll, time travel car chase!” – 13-Year-Old Me
I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again… time travel car chase. It’s so cool! Denzel barreling down the street trying to catch a guy four days in the past wearing the dumbest helmet ever just because of a plot point about how the Magic Time Window can only see any one moment in the past once and the signal is weakening… that’s good stuff. That’s the kind of stupid/smart action I live for. But alas, a good sequence doesn’t mean a good story, and 50 intriguing plot points aren’t compelling when logic dictates that only 25 of them are actually possible.
Denzel is Action Denzel here, so you’ve seen him already and you’ll see him again.
Action Denzel’s never just good at his job; he’s condescendingly good.
Paula Patton’s job in Deja Vu is to be scared, confused, and distrustful, which she gets a pass for.
The gun helps.
Jim Caviezel does a pretty great job as the villain. It’s a stock bad guy, to be sure, but Jim definitely pours on the Creepy Guy With a Handwritten Manifesto vibe well.
Adam Goldberg is the science guy. He and his team run double duty as exposition and comic relief. At the end of the day, the science scores just slightly higher than the Michael Bay-esque comedy, but neither of those are Adam’s fault. When a character is reduced to saying something off of the Wikipedia time travel page and then rolling his eyes, Adam is one guy you want in that role.
What a smart, funny beard you have.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
If we’re strictly talking time travel effects, I’ve got to level with you… they look the same as all the white flashes, whip pans, and speed ramps that are found plastered all over the second half of Tony Scott’s filmography for no reason other than style. You can’t tell if someone’s pierced the fabric of time or the opening credits have started again. Marvel, however, at the visual feast that is THE TIME FAX!
Where we’re going, we don’t need toner!
When it comes to the ka-boom effects, holy shit, you better believe this is a Tony Scott film. Practical and CGI pyrotechnics merge to give you a damned accurate boat explosion that you can feel in your gut.
Model? Computers? Real? I can’t tell. Time to fire up some special features.
There’s one effect that bothers me from a story standpoint. Denzel is originally told that the Magic Time Window is merely a series of composited images grabbed via satellites that are rendered into something resembling video. This turns out to be a lie… but then why does some of the Magic Time Window footage appear to work that way? Was the FX team kept in the dark as well?
The hell is this?
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- For some reason, the title has no accent marks according to several sources, including IMDb and the Leonard Maltin app. Is this to avoid confusion with similarly titled films? If you scroll up, there are clearly accent marks on the cover.
- The boat that explodes in the film’s opening is said to contain the returning crew members of the U.S.S. Nimitz. Is this a reference to that same aircraft carrier’s journey through time in the film The Final Countdown?
- THE REST OF THESE BULLET POINTS ARE ALL HUGE SPOILERS. Laser pointer. Laser pointer! Denzel is suspicious of the Magic Time Window and thinks that Paula Patton can tell that they’re looking at her, so he shoots a laser pointer at the screen, which shows up on a lamp in her apartment and she freaks out. What? What? A thousand times, what? You expect us to believe that the monitor is the literal hole in time? That the only thing stopping anyone from walking through it is some glass? This really is the brain-breaker moment, and unfortunately, it only gets more confusing from there.
- STILL SPOILIN’. This movie is guilty of what I call “immutabullshit.” They seem to set up that everything operates in an immutable timeline, where anything you do in the past is already part of history. There’s a rather brilliant scene where they send a letter back in time to Denzel’s partner, only to discover that that letter is what lead to his death in the first place. Alright. Cool. I like stuff like that. Later, Denzel actually goes back in time, and it starts to become apparent that he’s the one who’s left several clues for himself along the way. Hey, neat! Then he prevents the boat explosion. Which causes no paradoxes. Meaning that they’ve switched over to alternate timeline rules, because faith. Ugh. The only way for this to make sense is if another Denzel from another timeline went back before the events of the movie and just happened to leave the exact same clues, which is a huge leap of– oh, fuck you. “Faith” is not synonymous with “astronomically high odds as a result of poor screenwriting.”
- SPOIL-O-RAMA. This movie does get some credit for having one of the coolest time travel methods. Sending you back ceases all electrical activity in the body, essentially killing you. Oops! How do you fix this minor snafu? Just write “REVIVE ME” on Denzel’s chest, time-plop him into a hospital four days in the past, and cross your fingers.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
While the Time Team is arguing back at HQ about whether or not the past can be changed, Denzel lets out this head-scratcher of a line that may explain a lot about the screenwriters’ understanding of the three kinds of timelines:
“Yeah, we changed one thing, but by changing one thing, we didn’t change anything.“
Here’s what’s sad about a movie that has a lot of fantastic ideas but shoots itself in whichever foot contains the logic: what can you do about it? Make it again with all the stupid parts fixed? Ha, never mind, that’s already acceptable for superhero franchises. But, here we are with Deja Vu, a film with an intriguing premise and some truly inventive action sequences. It has a great mystery and a great message, but as written, those puzzle pieces just can’t be jammed together. You could remake it to focus on one or the other, but why bother? If you like talking about how you’d change a film after you watch it, Deja Vu might be worth your time. If you refuse to hunt for enjoyment in a gripping thriller that you know will ultimately disappoint, then run away and don’t look back.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.