Haven’t we seen this before?

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2006

“Deja Vu”

Touchstone Pictures

2 hours, 8 minutes

I imagine that, as an actor, it’s probably seductively easy to get typecast. Playing essentially the same character again and again makes for a ready payday and wide audience recognition. So why not? I will say, however, it takes some guts to play such a role when the very title of the movie shouts, “You’ve seen this character before!” Maybe that didn’t occur to Denzel Washington when he was reading the script for Tony Scott’s latest, “Deja Vu.”

Granted, the title of the movie has nothing to do with Denzel’s recurring tendency to play tough, determined, affable detective roles. “Deja Vu,” for anyone who missed “The Matrix,” is the vague feeling that you’ve seen or done something before. Some people take it as a subtle form of premonition, some as evidence of reincarnation, and some as what science tells us it is: a little misfire in your brain. Like a hiccup.

Onscreen, however, there’s a lot more to it than that, and only a detective as tough, determined and affable as Denzel will be able to figure it out. Wait, did I say that before?

Washington plays ATF Agent Doug Carlin, assigned to investigate a horrific ferry boat bombing just off the port of New Orleans. While sifting through the wreckage and the hundreds of bodies, Carlin comes across one that doesn’t quite fit. A young woman, badly burned and battered, washes up close to an hour earlier than should have been physically possible had she been on the ferry. Ah ha.

So maybe someone just wanted it to look like she was on the doomed ferry. But why?

Following from clue to clue, Carlin gradually gains the attention of shadowy a FBI agent played by Val Kilmer, who brings him in on an interdepartmental project that defies belief. Somehow, a few eggheads with some highly scientific looking equipment have figured out a way to “see” back in time; 4 1/2 days back, to be exact.

Time is still moving, and there is no fast forward or rewind, but the team can go anywhere and watch anything happening within a certain radius of their station. Time is like a river, they explain, and they’ve just figured out how to watch a different part.

Of course, the question inevitably becomes, if they can see the flow, how hard would it be to actually jump into it?

“Deja Vu” has two levels upon which to work: the exciting thriller, which works, and the science fiction, which doesn’t. There is a lot to like about this film. It’s fun, for one. The action moves along at a fast clip, giving us great explosions, gun fights and car chases — the best of which has Denzel driving the wrong way down a freeway (I know, deja vu, but it works) with one eye viewing the traffic of 4 1/2 days earlier, and one eye on the actual road ahead. And there’s a reason Washington keeps playing these roles — he’s good at it and they work.

The acting’s fine across the board and director Scott keeps his famously frenetic style in check. Even the ending, though a little bit of a letdown on one level, makes sense and holds up, making for an imminently watchable action thriller.

My problem with this movie, and with movies like it, is that they promise so much more. Time travel movies in general never seem to go as far as they could. There’s always a character that spouts dire warnings about the fabric of the universe, but it never comes to anything. There’s always a shadowy villain who suggests that there is much more going on than the hero realizes. There isn’t. There are always supposedly horrible consequences of misuse of the “machine,” but in the end there really aren’t.

“The Matrix” fulfills its sci-fi potential, and people loved it. H.G. Wells told a great time travel story, and “Planet of the Apes” lives up to its premise with a great ending. But overall, movies that embrace so-called “hard science fiction,” that is, science fiction based on technology that could actually exist, often leave the audience feeling unsatisfied, and “Deja Vu” is no exception.

Time travel in this film is simply another gadget, a detective’s tool, used with nothing more than surface consequences. That disappointed me, though the film entertains overall.

I read a pretty good book a while back (and I’m sure the screenwriter did as well) called “The Light of Other Days,” by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The idea was that a wormhole could be created in the fabric of space-time and a microscopic camera could be inserted, allowing for past viewing. Sound familiar? That book was all about implications and consequences and decidedly light on action, but it takes the premise seriously, which is what I wanted this film to do.

Fun though it was, “Deja Vu” is ultimately forgettable. Grade: B-

“Deja Vu” is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and disturbing images of torture and dead bodies.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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