This modestly entertaining film kicks off with a great premise: it’s the sort of intellectual concept ripe for a mind-bending examination of the intriguing possibilities; unfortunately, such introspection is out of bounds in a would-be action-thriller. Consequently, the concept remains unexplored, except in so far as it provides fodder for some marginally innovative action scenes.
Nicholas Cage plays Cris Johnson, who works a magic act in Vegas under the stage name Frank Cadillac. Johnson can see two-minutes into the future, but here’s the catch: in many cases, he doesn’t see the actual future, because his actions prevent his premonitions from coming to pass, thus creating a “new” future. This raises some interesting questions, such as: If Johnson is constantly creating a new future that he has not foreseen, how different is he, really, from the rest of us?
When you stop and think about it, all of us see into the immediate future to some degree – and act in ways that change that future into something else. (For example, if you are about to drop a heavy burden and realize it might land on your toe, you adjust your stance – injury averted.) To some extent, certain people even make a living at this, doing something more than a cheap mentalist act. Consider chess champions, whose excellence consists not only of seeing the board before them but of thinking ten or twenty moves ahead, visualizing an opponent’s potential actions and predicting how the possible permutations will work out.
NEXT never really considers any of these ideas. Instead, it relies on two elements to fuel the plot: a love story and a terrorist threat. In the first, Johnson sees – for the first time in his life – more than two seconds into the future, to a time when a Liz (Jessica Biel) walks into a coffee shop. In the second, Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) tries to forcibly recruit Johnson to help her track down some bad guys with a nuclear device up their sleeves. Johnson refuses to cooperate: he’s not going to let a little thing like a few million innocent lives lost interfere with his pursuit of his dream girl, but when the terrorists kidnap Liz he has a change of heart (nothing like a little personal rooting interest to inspire one’s sense of civic duty).
The film has a certain amount of fun playing with Johnson’s premonitions, allowing them to play out as if they were actually happening and then back-tracking to show that we are simply sharing John’s preview of the potential future. This results in some amusing sequences, as in the coffee shop when Liz finally arrive for real – and Johnson pre-visualizes a series of different opening lines, all of which meet with rejection.
This sequence contradicts the earlier suggestion that Johnson cannot see how the future will differ after he takes action. Are his powers developing? Is he learning to use them better? Or is there something magical about his connection with Liz (true love, perhaps?) that amplifies his precognition? In any case, the film elaborates this concept into a visually intriguing scene near the climax, when Johnson pauses in mediation, his body splitting into numerous phantom clones as he pre-visualizes every possible variation in the face-off with the terrorists.
It’s a great idea for a thrilling set piece, although the suspense is somewhat undermined by the fact that this strategy seems to make Johnson pretty much invulnerable. The film takes it as a given that he has the physical coordination, stamina, and skill to capitalize on his visions (even if that means something as difficult as dodging bullets and avalanches). And it never occurs to the screenwriters that there may be some situations for which there is simply no good alternative.
In a last-ditch attempt to offer up some kind of surprise (and also to satisfy the build-up that has us anticipating the detonation of a nuclear bomb), the film resorts to a lame plot twist at the conclusion. It takes the Brian DePalma “it’s only a dream” (or, in this case, premonition) conclusion to absurd lengths (something DePalma himself already achieved with FEMME FATALES, but at least that film offered lots of visual hints that set up the last-reel surprise). The absurdity of pulling the rug out from under the audience in this manner undermines whatever meager credibility the film had left, reducing its previous running time to nothing more than one long fake-out.
For those with low expectations who are easily satisfied, NEXT is a watchable popcorn movie until it falls apart near the end. One could forgive the filmmakers for abandoning the challenging potential inherent in their premise. But when they opt for the easy route, it is much harder to forgive them for failing to live up to their own considerably lowered standards. Nobody said this had to be great art, but why couldn’t it be a satisfying thrill machine?
Apparently in an attempt to avoid the stereotypical Hollywood approach, the terrorists are not from the Middle East but from Europe. They speak with French or German accents, but who they are is never explained, nor is their motivation for detonating the bomb. Also, it is not clear how they know that Cris Johnson can see the future and, therefore, possibly thwart their plans.
NEXT (2007). Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay by Gary Goldman and Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum, screen story by Goldman, based on the story “The Golden Man” by Philip K. Dic. Cast: Nicholas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschman, Tory Kittles Jose Zuniga, Peter Falk.