by JAMES BRIGHAM
NIC CAGE KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
For reasons briefly explained in my Ten Anticipated Films for 2007 article from January, I was really looking forward to Next, an action mindbender starring the masterful Nic Cage, the vivacious Jessica Biel, and the reliable Julianne Moore. Unlike Cage’s Vegas magician, Cris, I have no ability to tell what the future holds; if I did, I might have glimpsed what a mixed bag this movie was and put a different entry in its place.
Next is appropriately titled: the flick is yet another entry in the endless procession of revisions of cult author Philip K. Dick’s imaginative works. It’s also what I was thinking by the time the credits started rolling, “Was that really what I was chomping at the bit to see at the top of the New Year? What else is on my list? Next!”
I adore Philip K. Dick’s stories, even though I’ve only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Confused? Allow me to explain, dear readers. Dick’s drug fueled brand of reality warping science fiction has proved to be a wellspring of ideas for Hollywood’s movers and shakers. Beginning with Ridley Scott’s visionary masterpiece Blade Runner in 1982, successive Dick adaptations have been both big budget epics (Total Recall, Minority Report) and smaller productions (Screamers, A Scanner Darkly). These films have been executed with various degrees of critical and commercial success in spite of the author’s hardcore fan base being of the consensus that such interpretations are loose re-tellings at best. Regardless of these transgressions, I consistently find the core ideas of his material fascinating enough to overcome the warnings of any such naysayer.
That’s probably why I’m willing to give so much slack to the filmmakers behind Next. The premise of a man being constantly able to see his near future and react appropriately to avoid the worst results is a fascinating idea. There’s potential for captivating moments on every conceivable level of dramatic conflict. How would a man’s life change if he knew how to avoid every spilled cup of coffee and sarcastic putdown? What would it do to a person’s mentality if every run-in with death was explicitly lived out mentally? Shamefully, the writers primarily seem to be interested in seeing the prophetic Cris in hair-raising car chases, deadly shootouts, and gigantic (but poorly rendered) CGI avalanches. A bit more time spent following our visionary hero through his day-to-day existence would have done wonders for Next’s appeal. As it stands, there’s little “normality” to contrast against the whiz-bang pursuits that Cris is rapidly thrust into.
Cris himself is an amusing bundle of personality quirks. Alternating between silent moping and over-the-top showmanship, Cage does a respectable job portraying a guy whose life is one constant game of follow-the-leader. As a man who sees every possible scenario that directly pertains to his next two minutes on the planet, Cris is understandably resigned to an utterly predictable existence. He uses this unnatural foresight as part of his stage show shtick and enhances his income through illicit application of said superpower to win at cards. Complication occurs when he meets a luminescent beauty going by the name of Liz (Biel). Liz is important because Cris’ initial sighting of her is the only bit of the future that he’s been able to see outside of his standard two minute window.
Shades of Groundhog Day danced through my brain during an amusing diner sequence in which Cris mentally projects through a succession of failed conversation starters with the attractive lass. He eventually resigns himself to the fact that Liz has a comforting personality and that the best way to get into her good graces is to take a punch from a soon to be arriving ex-boyfriend. Light though it may be, such comedy isn’t always a bad thing in my book.
Although Cage and Biel won’t ever top any Best Onscreen Couple lists, their repartee is still sweetly engaging and only slightly bordering on the melodramatic. Biel’s character is really only here to look good (fancy that!) and play the damsel in distress – she serves both functions admirably. (Where was Jessica Biel when they were casting Helen in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy? Hers is the face that would launch 1,001 ships!) Cage is surprisingly understated in a way that slowly grew on me. At first I felt like his performance could have benefited from a few more weird flourishes – greater reliance on sleight-of-hand tricks or more oddball shouts – but I eventually decided that his reoccurring sullen demeanor is befitting a character with prescience. He’s a charming agent of the universe’s weirdness.
Further upsetting Cris’ status quo is his dogged pursuit by government agent Callie Ferris (Moore) who’s intent on using our hero’s remarkable future sense to track down a rogue nuclear device, whether he wants to help or not. In many ways, she represents the elements of shadowy conspiracy that pop up again and again in Dick adaptations. Although her goals are just, her methods are often suspect and Next subtly casts her agency in a negative light: Cris undergoes forced viewing of news shows while wearing an eye opening device akin to the technology seen in A Clockwork Orange; also a sinister looking brain operation table is seen fleetingly during an escape attempt.
The deeper ramifications of a just political body doing illicit things for the greater good is soon jettisoned, however, in exchange for massive exchanges of gunfire between the white hats of law and order and the generic bad guys of this pseudo future: the Russian Federation (or some such nonsense). Don’t ask me what the hell this faction’s polemic was; all I know is that they’ve got a weapon of mass destruction and that they like to shoot Vegas security guards in the kneecaps in order to garner Intel. I eventually just rationalized this inexplicable conflict by imagining that G.I. Joe had recruited Cris in their ongoing battles with Cobra. Everything thereafter went down a lot smoother.
Even though the movie is overloaded with such underwhelming action sequences, the filmmakers due a fine job of eliciting awe when Cris cuts loose with his powers to help fight these antagonists. While the extent of his ability often seems dependent on the necessities of the plot at any given moment, some credit should be dispensed to the directing efforts of Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day), the editing by Christian Wagner, and Next’s FX crew for realizing all the cool ways to freshly display Cris’ visionary skills. They run the gamut of simple repetition of the same scene (the Groundhog Day effect) to the insertion of multiple copies of the magician all wandering the same area at once.
Like a Vegas act, if you stop to think too long about the ramifications of Cris’ two-minute window, you’ll begin to disbelieve the entirety of the film. For example, why is one character encouraged to merely wait two minutes before slipping a sleeping pill into a drink Cris is about to consume? Doesn’t the two-minute timeframe simply advance to cover the point at which the deception eventually occurs? Does it black out at the two-minute mark in order to recharge? Pay that no mind, ladies and gentlemen – look at this man dodging in slow motion like Neo in The Matrix while Jessica Biel prances around wearing only a towel.
Next’s showy game of deception was empty but enjoyable. Although the film wasn’t the intriguing head-trip I had initially hoped for, it did a nice job of turning around for the better in the latter half. Even with mediocre execution and a glut of pedestrian action tripe, the backbone of the story is too powerful to easily bury. Would Philip K. Dick have been satisfied with the end result? It’s said that he wholeheartedly approved of both a set of special effects rough cuts and the screenplay to Blade Runner before his death in 1982. Next is no Blade Runner – it’s simultaneously bewitching and maddening, but it’s no Blade Runner. Next question.