Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu” (2006)

In 2006, Tony Scott re-teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer in what would ultimately be their last filmmaking project together.  That film was DEJA VU, and was released to mixed reviews and middling box office success.  It was a far cry from the box office phenomenon of their first collaboration, TOP GUN (1986), but their last team-up has beared underrated, yet highly flawed, fruit.

DEJA VU is an action thriller about time travel, one of many in a long line of science fiction films.  However, to its credit, the premise is incredibly novel (if slightly unrealistic), and generates a strong amount of narrative currency.  Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, a seasoned Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency veteran who’s been called in to investigate a terrorist attack on American soil.  In New Orleans, a ferry becomes a waterborne-bomb responsible for the deaths of 500 men, women and children.  In the aftermath, Carlin is teamed up with FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who introduces him to an incredible new technology, code-named “Snow White”.  In essence, Snow White harnesses all the digital surveillance tools at their disposal to create an omniscient view of the past– specifically, four days into the past.  They can only visit one spot at a time, and it can only be viewed once before being gone forever, but it allows the user to assume God-like levels of surveillance and observation.  When Carlin begins to suspect this amazing new device is really a time machine, he orchestrates a plan to travel back in time himself to prevent the bombing of the ferry, and the death of the woman at the center of it all.

I had never seen DEJA VU before, and had passively avoided it in theatres when I heard the middling reviews.  To be honest, I had incredibly low expectations coming into this film.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking- “Hey.  You know?  This movie is actually kinda good!”.  Don’t get me wrong, those looking for high art and deep questions will find their hunger in-satiated, but if you’re looking for an entertaining ride with a hint of depth, then you can do a lot worse than DEJA VU.

This is first and foremost a Tony Scott film, which means that the actors will bring high levels of energy and zeal to their roles.  Everyone here turns in some great performances.  Denzel Washington, who has since become DeNiro to Scott’s Scorsese, depicts a quiet, focused, and dedicated servant of justice.  He’s somewhat of a generic hero, but Washington’s undeniable charm generates the appropriate amounts of sympathy for his character.  Val Kilmer, by contrast, has become somewhat of a pop-culture punching bag lately.  Known for his Brando-esque ballooning in size and questionable role choices, he does a great job as a bookish FBI agent burdened by the implications of his great machine’s existence.  It’s a subdued, layered performance that will make you rethink your punchlines about him.  Paula Patton plays Claire Kuchever, the girl at the center of the story.  Initially presumed killed in the ferry blast when her body washes up on shore, her autopsy reveals several chronological inconsistencies that rivet Carlin’s attention.  As he uses Snow White’s eye to zero in on her life building up to the blast, he finds himself falling for her.  Thankfully, Patton’s charming smile and sensitive demeanor make it all too easy to buy into.  While the character descends into stock damsel-in-distress territory in the last two acts, Patton does her best with which she’s given.

The supporting cast is nicely rounded out by some recognizable faces.  As the terrorist mastermind behind the bombing, Jim Caviezel channels the cold, sinister nature of Timothy McVeigh and his twisted take on patriotism.  He’s unrelenting in his focus, personified by a soul-piercing, icy stares.  Caviezel makes for a curious villain, especially after his turn as turn-the-other-cheek Jesus in that infamous Mel Gibson torture porno.  Veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood appears as the mandatory bureaucrat hack that jeopardizes Carlin’s mission, and Adam Goldberg fills the mandatory “sarcastic techno-geek” role that’s as standard in science fiction as cup holders in a new car.  Despite their somewhat-cliched roles, each brings a unique layer of characterization to his performance and makes it his own.

Visually, Scott tones his aesthetic way down to more conventional-levels of style.  Working again with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott eschews the frenetic chaos that had become his trademark to create an image that’s subdued and even.  Some of Scott’s visual quirks persist: high contrast, heavily saturated colors favoring a yellow/orange tint with shadows that take on a blue/green tone.  However, the camera is much more steady and even, covering the action in traditional wide and close-up shots.  He also makes use of slow-motion ramping, and employs 360 degree circling dolly in multiple instances.  The Anamorphic aspect ratio adds a considerable amount of punch to the frame, especially in Scott’s helicopter-circling establishing shots.  And of course, this wouldn’t be a Scott film without overblown light shining through curtains and blinds.

Scott also continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the score, which takes on a conventional cinematic tone with soaring strings against a pulsing electronic beat.  It’s effective and brings a large degree of emotion to the action, but let’s just say you won’t find yourself humming these songs anytime soon.

There’s a lot of good going for this film.  The setting is New Orleans whose wounds from Hurricane Katrina are still raw and open.  In fact, there’s even footage of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where Caviezel has his hideout.  The story goes that the film was originally supposed to take place in Long Island, but New Orleans serves as a much more memorable and unique locale.

Another strong point of the story is the technological time-warping device at the center of it all.  While it requires a huge leap of the imagination in order to buy it as a viable machine, the way it works and its explanation within the film is incredibly novel.  The machine itself strongly resembles a miniature version of the Large Hadron Collider, and much like the LHC, “Snow White” is very bold and experimental in its wiring.  It is initially presented as a massively detailed composite image of the world as it was four days ago, stitched together from the wealth of digital data afforded by satellites, cell phones, and surveillance cameras.  Omnisciently, it can even go into private residences and spy intimately on anyone they choose.  There’s a catch, however– due to the amount of time needed to render this composite, they can only view what’s exactly four days in the past, and cannot rewind or fast-forward.  It’s a very crucial caveat to a machine that bestows God-like powers upon its user, making him or her choose the subject of surveillance wisely.

The applications of this technology is where the film finds its strongest moments.  The whole thing has a MINORITY REPORT-esque “pre-crime” bent, albeit with primitive, clunky tech that’s much more realistic.  The tech also allows for an incredibly novel spin on that old action film classic scene: the car chase.  Because of the real-time, localized nature of the machine,  Washington’s Carlin finds himself behind the wheel in pursuit of Cavaziel, who is actually leading the chase from four days in the past.  That dynamic makes for an incredibly inventive and, frankly, brilliant scene that finds Carlin switching his focus from the present to the past instantaneously like he’s chasing a ghost.

DEJA VU doesn’t skimp on depth, either.  Any film that concerns itself with time travel is going to have to at one point address those nagging paradoxical questions.  Scott takes a simplistic tack, comparing the flow of time to the flow of a river, and if the flow finds itself diverted from its original course, it simply follows a different, yet parallel track.  This is dramatized via a series of clues left behind in Claire’s apartment, the most chilling of which finds Carlin listening to a voicemail that he left for her a few days ago, which is strange considering he just found out about her existence earlier that day.  While that little thread unfortunately is never capitalized upon by the film’s denouement, the rest of the clues in Claire’s apartment are explained in fascinating detail when Carlin travels back in time to save her.

A lesser director would get entangled in all the minutiae and logic paradoxes, but Scott juggles the disparate elements with grace (although, to be fair, he does drop the ball here and there).  DEJA VU is important to highlight in the context of Scott’s career, as it shows a dramatic scaling back of bold style in order to balance it better with the story.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great film, but it is certainly underrated and deserves better than its current reputation.

DEJA VU is available on high definition Blu Ray via Buena Vista.