Déjà Vu

If I could turn back time: domestic terrorism edition
★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2006
Director: 
Tony Scott
Starring: 
Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Paula Patton, James Caviezel, Adam Goldberg
The Setup: 
Terrorists blow up a ferry, but Denzel can go back in time and STOP ‘EM!
Discussion: 

This movie always seemed to be in fantastically poor taste. To mine serious subjects like terrorist attack, Katrina and ruined lives for cheap blockbuster thrills? Ugh. And there were parts of it [and, of course, the entire idea behind it] that live up to that, and there are a lot of other parts that are just kind of ‘good thriller.’

Before we begin we have a trailer for The Queen that makes it look like an intense, pulse-pounding thriller taking place on the international stage. How disappointed people are going to be that it’s a talky British drama about a woman changing her mind.

Now the movie. As the credits play we see a bunch of cheering and happy Navy sailors run excitedly onto a ferry. There are also a number of good, clean citizens, and an ominous bit about a little girl losing her doll [of a little girl], and watching it wash away. There is a marching band playing “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and a car radio playing the Beach Boys. It is Fat Tuesday during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The point of all these details is to make sure we all understand that these are good, innocent, morally-upright Americans who want nothing more than a strong cell signal and a conveniently-located Costco. It’s the American dream—and in one flash, all those good consumers are going to be wiped out.

The ferry explodes, I’m sure you know. There was a whole article in the New York Times about this explosion, talking about how they really blew a ferry up, leaving one to wonder then; why does it look so fake? We see a car at the back of the ferry with the bomb, but the ship seems to explode in a wave [along the passenger deck, btw] from the front, and several of the fireballs have those dark edges to them that make then look like they were inserted by computer. If it was all real, it’s too bad they went through all that effort. We find out later that this explosive device was nefariously planned with molecular-level precision to “make the entire ferry into a bomb.” Oh—are ferries inflammable? They always look like rather non-flammable steel and benches to me, but obviously I’m no bomb expert. The reason I’m harping on all this is that it is, well, disgusting to spice up what is presented as a terrorist attack in which 500 people die to make it FUCKING AWESOME and something you’d want to go to your multiplex to check out. Like, how sweet would it be if we had this kind of multi-camera footage when 9/11 happened? Oh wait, we did—but what if it was all good quality and in HD and we could SEE flaming people leaping to their deaths? Dude, the sweetness would be unending.

Following this is further repulsive camerawork that apes the style of news footage, showing people crying, lives devastated, you know the deal. That’s entertainment!

While we are watching the faux post-Katrina footage [and this whole thing was filmed in New Orleans] we hear mournful music. It’s true: tragedy coverage on CNN and Fox has become awesome blockbuster entertainment, and awesome blockbuster entertainment is aping CNN and Fox. So what’s my beef? My beef is don’t mine real-life tragic events as a plot point in your idiotic sci-fi blockbuster about time travel. They could have easily made this about a heist that went wrong and inadvertently killed a lot of people and thus not made it so offensive.

Okay, the bulk of that out of the way, we can get back to the action. Denzel arrives. His name is Doug Carlin [an awfully white name] and he’s the typical brilliant ATF agent who knows and perceives more than any other mere human. We note that it is torrentially raining, even though the sky is obviously clear and the sun is shining brilliantly, but you know, it always rains when something bad happens in a movie. And of course we all know that God is extra sad when Americans die. Hey, are you ready to get down and get necrophilic?

After determining that “unlike Katrina,” this was a terrorist act, Denzel hops over to the morgue where he falls in love with the stunningly gorgeous corpse of Claire Kuchever [another curiously white name], who retains her warm and rosy glow, even in death! He says she beautiful and holds her hand, and gazes longingly at the photo of her corpse as he takes the streetcar. Then he goes through her apartment and falls in love with her by looking at her things. I should also mention that through his brilliant powers of observation—that no one else in the movie has, as you can tell by Denzel’s glowing eyes—he deduces that Claire was killed before the explosion and made to look like a victim. And so far there have been numerous scenes in which Denzel adds a sheen of laughing, faux-buddy-buddy contempt for the various white people he is forced to work with.

So a rather pudgy Val Kilmer asks Denzel to help his team, and on the way Denzel discovers that his friend at the ATF was killed in the explosion. So you see, now Denzel has a PERSONAL reason for wanting to find the bomber. So they’re watching this video screen of the ferry four days before the bombing and zooming in on anything they want to, from any angle. But of course none of them would bother to explain to Denzel what they’re looking at. So when he finally asks they tell him that they’re looking four days and six hours into the past, which they do via satellite. The part about how they can look sideways and up from a satellite that is in space… well, I guess the science is just beyond me. This is, we are told, “the same technology we’re using in Iraq!” There’s also a bit about the many cameras that are in any one urban area, so I think it’s all supposed to have some frisson about pervasive surveillance, although ultimately the movie comes down on the side of pervasive surveillance because it helps stop terrorism! And as we will soon see [in the film... you can just open a newspaper any time to see it in real life], stopping terrorism justifies absolutely any action.

So then Denzel makes them focus in on Claire’s apartment and he sees her alive. She is, of course, wearing a Victoria’s Secret-style bra and panties ensemble. They spy on her for a while, as Denzel falls more and more in love with her. Footage of her is music-video style footage of her smiling beatifically and looking around coyly—which who knows, maybe she REALLY does this while her ex calls and asks her to sell the car or just pay him his share because he really needs the money. Then Denzel thinks she knows someone is watching. Then we see her as she takes a shower, and the guys leer at her. Then I think there’s some other reason Claire has to be shown in her lingerie, then we see her babysitting [she’s good with kids!], then she’s getting ready for a date, which of course requires additional footage of her in her lingerie. It’s a little distasteful, as these are the scenes in which Denzel is falling in love with her, the implication being that her body is her main attribute as a human. If the Denzel role was filled by a woman and she was falling in love with some guy by spying on him, there would surely be one scene of him in his underwear, but the rest would surely be about what a great and sensitive PERSON he is, clothed or not. Ladies, please keep in mind that you are only valuable as a human being if you are sexy, and your personal worth diminishes with every article of clothing you have on. Thank you.

So Denzel thinks Claire knows she’s being watched, and when he points his laser pointer at the screen the light appears on her lamp, and this shorts out the circuit board! So Denzel wonders if they can send something—or someone—back, and they say no, they can only send back inanimate objects, and the last time they tried to do that they caused the big East Coast blackout of a few years ago. Why a facility in New Orleans would cause a blackout on the Eastern Seaboard… well, like I said, I don’t understand the science. I guess I’m also unclear on why this one-of-a-kind hyper-advanced scientific lab would be built in New Orleans. And, whew, what were the chances that a terrorist attack would happen RIGHT THERE? Sometimes it just works out. Anyway, Denzel is told that there are scientific reasons they can’t send anything back, but HE thinks there may be a SPIRITUAL dimension to it all! And when he mentions this, the stirring music SWELLS!

SPOILERS > > >
So they send a note back, but Denzel misses it and his buddy gets it, and ends up dead. But they have identified their terrorist, and it’s Jim Caviezel, Jesus from The Passion of the Christ! There are parts where his pic is on the right and the computer is skimming through pictures to find a match, and I was SO hoping the identity would finally click into place and someone would shout “Holy shit! It’s JESUS!” You will also note that our terrorist is WHITE. You see, ya gotta have some sensitivity! Anyway, around this time you start thinking “Boy, are they gonna spend the entire movie in this control room?” Because it sure seems like it. This would adapt very easily to the stage. I need hardly tell you that there are numerous shots of knob-twiddling [not the good kind] and button-pushing. But it’s, you know, X-Treme button pushing.

So they spot Jesus and he’s driving “out of range!” [there has to be some arbitrary technological limitation] so Denzel hops in the Hummer which is outfitted with a past-cam and takes off after him. So he is chasing a car that WAS there four days earlier, which means there are a lot of cars that are on the road NOW, and he smashes into and flips over a lot of them. We do not give these cars another thought, even though it looks like the drivers must have been seriously injured, maimed or killed, because as we mentioned earlier, ANYTHING is excusable when fighting terrorism. [One other review says that we see Denzel call the paramedics for the people he has maimed or killed—oh, so it’s all better!—but truth be known I didn’t see that part.] So we have all this mourning for the innocent victims on the ferry, but none for the innocent victims killed by our hero. There are also a number of accident and explosions on the same bridge four days in the past, and you start to be like, “Did no one file a report from any of those major explosions? Why don’t they access that?”

Then Denzel and co. have to drive out to an area ruined by Hurricane Katrina to try to boost the energy of the movie by showing some real-life devastation—sooo fucking awesome, dude—and then they’ve captured Jesus and brought him in and Denzel interviews him. We never find out why he wants to blow up this ferry or what his whole motivation is, but you know, he’s a terrorist, so he’s evil and that’s all we really need to know. His being a cavern-eyed white guy is obviously a reference to Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, which Denzel was said to have worked on. I wonder if there is some feminization implied with his being named Carroll, followed up with Denzel telling him “You’d better have some K-Y, you’re going to need it.” So Bruce Greenwood shows up and delivers more of the “arrogant, dismissive white guy” schtick that is his stock in trade, and they close the investigation and the supercomputer. Then we have more distasteful references to 9/11 as we see shrines of candles for the victims.

So Denzel decides that he wants to try to save Claire, so he convinces the bearded hipster scientist to try to send him back. Val Kilmer essentially vanishes from the film at this point. Oh and you know all that stuff about how they’ve never been able to send a living thing back and it cannot be done and just trying to send a piece of paper back nearly blew out the whole power grid and they don’t have enough power to send something as large and complex as Denzel back? All gone. Bye bye. No more problem. It all works perfectly now, thank you very much. And guess what? It works! I must admit it’s rather cool when the power goes out in a hospital operating room and when it comes on suddenly Denzel is there with “Revive me” written on his chest. I guess you just really haven’t given your all in a film anymore unless you actually die.

So he busts out of the hospital and steals an ambulance and takes it out to Jesus’ rural home where he is busy dousing her with gasoline and is about to clip her fingers off. Denzel crashes the ambulance right into the room—hey, good thing he didn’t accidentally run her over! That would have been a perfect ending. In here Denzel also gets a bullet through the shoulder, which as we all know is akin to having a fingernail clipped. The Jesus shoots at some tanks that explode, sending flames everywhere, but Claire, whose hood and dress are saturated with gasoline, does not ignite. Then the entire house explodes, with Denzel and Claire leaping out the door as a huge jet of flame scorches their bodies, but still, gasoline-soaked Claire does not ignite! That must have been some flame-retardant gasoline.

So Denzel and Claire get in the car and there is a lot of blah, blah, blah until they decide to go prevent the ferry from exploding. There is a very important reason that Claire be there, and that they let the bomb get on the ferry. The reason is that if we didn’t, there would be no explosive ending. Somewhere in here we find out that the good, clean, innocent, pure American sailors on the ferry are on their way to a party! So Jesus has seen that Claire is on the boat and this leads to the inevitable shootout. It’s a little funny when the guns start going off the sailors leap to readiness, and there is one quick shot of three army guys in fatigues with machine guns running down to check it out! First of all, who are these guys? Why are they on the boat—with their machine guns? Is it because American troops are there wherever there is trouble and snap into readiness at the slightest hint of trouble? Then [here comes the ending, btw:] Denzel drives the car with him and Claire into the river and he frees Claire and she just swims off, leaving him trapped in the car there to die! Thanks a lot, chick I just came back in time to save! She swims right next to the whirling propellers but is NOT sucked in and hacked up. This woman truly is impervious! And Denzel explodes, but he saved the ferry. Then we see Claire crying, as though she did NOT just leave Denzel down there to die, and then she meets Denzel, but he doesn’t remember her. Okay, so we KNEW this was going to happen, but I at least thought they would come up with some sort of explanation for it. Because if Denzel stopped the ferry explosion, he wouldn’t have gone back in time to stop the ferry explosion… you see what I’m saying?
< < < SPOILERS END

I enjoyed it as a movie [except for the last 30 minutes that drag on and on], but at the same time found its whole being repulsive. 85% of this could have been saved if they hadn’t made it about terrorism. I’m not a big 9/11 sentimentalist and all that, but I do think that if you’re going to make a popcorn movie about time travel, keep it on popcorn subjects. Do not try to tie it into serious, real-world topics that really hurt and affect real people—and if you do, make it better than this! And don’t reach for seriousness, a sense of realism and urgency by evoking the tears and suffering of real people. If it had just been about something else—like a heist gone wrong, as I suggested—I would be much more willing to play along. Given this film’s relatively low gross [$64 Million] I wonder if other people felt the same way.

Other than that… well, there’s still the distasteful other 15%. I get peeved about the leering we have to do at Claire in her underwear. And I just don’t like the whole right-wing slant of it all. Almost all films are trying to pander to someone, and since the main audience of Scott/Bruckheimer films are in the red states, I resent that it’s all about the good, pure American soldiers listening to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” that Denzel and Claire both have white-sounding names and racial tension is reduced to Denzel throwing a hostile mocking tone to his cutting up with white officers, the cynical assumption that surveillance is everywhere but it’s okay because we use it to go back in time and prevent terrorism before it happens! Oh, and let’s not forget all the innocent people Denzel slaughters during his chase, but it’s okay because he’s killing them while fighting terrorism!

Now you might say “Come on, it’s just a movie,” as a fellow who was incensed at my review for Stealth which raised many of the same concerns, and similarly I would say that by tying itself so closely with real events this movie assumes the baggage of those real events and needs to deal with them responsibly. If this movie is about terrorism and portrays the sailors as good moral fellas and inserts inexplicable army guys in fatigues and machine guns at the ready, then this film is propaganda. If it were about some fictional event, it would not necessarily be propaganda. Since there is a real political debate about whether the U.S. has a right to arrest anyone it wants to without charges, invade countries and kill people because it is fighting terrorism, Denzel killing strangers while fighting terrorism does have a political context and does make a statement, despite how anyone might claim that it’s pure popcorn.

Otherwise, it would have been a lot of fun. I personally can go for time-travel anything, so that’s all good. I can forgive a lot of messing with logic and consistency. This movie bore some traces of films in the Wicker Park-mold during the scenes in which Denzel is falling for Claire via monitor, and even the music is very similar during these scenes. I listened to about 10 minutes of the commentary/making of thing on the disc and the screenwriter says “The first time he sees her is at her autopsy. How cool is that? She’s already dead!” Hmmm, I don’t know, how cool IS that? But it’s hard to completely blame the screenwriter [okay, not that hard]. Apparently the film was not going to be set in New Orleans, and the director moved it there, and a good deal of the commentary is apparently devoted to how generous they were by giving the post-Katrina city movie jobs of various kinds and pumping money into their economy. Before the credits there is a note saying that the film is “Dedicated to the strength and enduring spirit of the people of New Orleans.” As I’m not from New Orleans, I will refrain from making a cynical comment, but based on the movie that resulted, suffice to say I am not fully convinced.

Should you watch it: 

It’s an entertaining movie, a little more dreamy than the typical Scott/Bruckheimer film. I found the whole ‘real-world event’ angle vulgar and off-putting, but you may not.