Sunday, August 21, 2011

Next

As I pondered what to write about next ;), I decided to re-watch a fun little film that I originally put aside because it did not really seem like science fiction per se. I was almost shocked when the opening credits stated it was based on a story by one of the great authors of science fiction, the prolific Philip K. Dick. It is amazing how many of my favorite films turn out to be based on his stories once I take the time to look into it. The film is simply called Next and was released in 2007 starring Nicolas Cage in the lead role, who I've always liked for reasons I can never quite pinpoint.

The story the film claims to be based on is called The Golden Man, but a quick read of the plot synopsis reveals that the connection is quite tenuous. Dicke's story is about a future world of mutants oppressed by normal humans, almost like something out of the X-men series. The only common thread between the two works is that the lead character can see into the near future. The writers, led by Gary Goldman who also wrote the screenplay for another Dicke adaptation, Total Recall, took that one idea and expanded it into an entirely original story set in the present day. Without so much as pondering how it could happen, they ask the question: "If a man was born with the ability to see a few minutes into the future, what would he do with that ability? What would his life be like?". Such a question can only be answered by parable, and the story they produce illustrates the idea wonderfully, even if it does fall short in other areas.

=======================[spoilers below]=======================

Cage plays a character named Cris Johnson who is born with the ability to see 2 minutes into the future, and only his own future. But there is a catch that is summarized in this key quote that is heard via his own narration at the beginning and end of the film: "The thing about the future is, every time you look at it, it changes... because you looked at it. And that changes everything else." Dicke's story actually likens it to a chess match where the opponent looks at all possible strategies 5 moves ahead and then chooses the one that has the most favorable outcome. We first find Cris employed as a small time Vegas magician with a typically cheesy stage name of Frank Cadillac. In his show he uses his skill to predict what will happen to guests. By passing his skills off as mere magic tricks, he is able to hide his true ability and lead a somewhat normal life. Given the unbelievable nature of the gift, it is a very believable way of coping with it.

Seeing the immediate future can be very handy in Las Vegas, so Cris plays the tables to make a little cash on the side. He bets modestly to avoid attention. When that doesn't work, he has no problem escaping the guards before they get to him. One of the fun choices of the director was to sometimes trick us by showing us the future as if we're seeing the present, then backing up and showing how Cris actually avoids the scene we just witnessed by taking another course of action. For example, he is being chased by the police in a car which gets hit by an oncoming train as he tries to cross the track - Boom! No more Cris. Suddenly we're back 15 seconds when he actually foresaw that event. He then steps on the accelerator and just misses the train, leaving the police stuck behind it. Such a trick by the director might normally bother me but it doesn't in this case because I realized that it's a much better way to illustrate what is going on in Cris' head than trying to interrupt the story with silly dream sequences. Just as long as it is not overused. But even the big twist at the end just made me grin at the cleverness of it all.

The story involves a love interest (played sincerely by Jessica Biel) that Cris cannot seem to escape, and an FBI chase after a group of terrorists who have stolen a Russian nuke and intend to use it. One agent (a mean Julianne Moore) has followed Cris and believes he is the answer to their problem, and that complicates his newfound romance. Overall, the plotline and the characters are not very convincing, but what redeems it is how Cris uses his ability to achieve his intended goals. It is just great to watch him in action and try to figure out how he did it. For example, he's leading a group of soldiers through dangerous territory and suddenly stops and tells them "Wait, sniper overhead!". You know he just saw himself getting shot a few seconds ahead. They ask him "Where is he?", and he says "I'll locate him...". We see only Cris concentrating for a few seconds and then he reports the sniper location. What he actually did was move out in several different directions in the future and see where he felt the bullet, and then used triangulation to determine the sniper's location - or something like that. You have to think a few steps ahead to follow it all, which makes the whole film worth a second viewing.

Believability aside, I think this film would be squarely placed in the sci-fi category if there had been some attempt to explain the phenomenon. Imagine if Cris instead had a device that could see a few minutes into the future - like a time machine. That, of course, would change the plot dynamics since the parties in question would be after the device rather than after the man. It also would add more complication to an already confusing concept to put on screen. I think the authors left it out so they could focus on the main character's life and how his gift affects everything he does, and that was in my opinion a good decision.

3 comments:

  1. I never thought of this film as a sci-fi movie. Knowing its based on a Philip K. Dick story (sort of) makes me want to see it. It reminds me of "Paycheck." I'll have to rent it.

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  2. Just based on your comment, I went ahead and watched Paycheck. I do remember wanting to see it a while back but never got around to it. I thought it was a pretty neat idea. Puzzles involving past and future are always fun to try to figure out.

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  3. great movie ... i love nicolas cage

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