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It’s like a single trailing moment of now, in the past.


Déjà vu


Some interestingly distinctive ideas rather get thrown to the wind for the sake of more conventional “Everybody lives” uplift in this time-travel movie. In the course of which, there’s an unspooling of what initially seemed like clarity of concept A (observing an unchanging past) into a much lesser watertight concept B (interacting with that multi-timelined past). Déjà vu is an intriguing and well-spun movie for the first hour of its running time. Its strength is at once working on a localised level, which also carries the weakness of immediately drawing attention to itself (this tech, were it to exist, would never be permitted for such piffling details as a terrorist bomber). Unless, of course, you were promulgating the idea that lone mad terrorists were everything you needed to protect the average American – and the average American sailor – from. And lone mad patriot terrorists at that.

Making it a little ironic that David Jenkins’ Time Out review accused the film of being “a calculated slab of US jingoism that treats an horrific disaster with lunkheaded insensitivity”. Sure, “the forces of evil” have been licked. But, doubtless because the makers were afraid to make the bad guys towelheads, the forces of evil are the forces of extreme jingoism (or to put it another way, the movie is honest: the only terrorist threat you need to worry about on home ground is the one coordinated by US “jingoists”, so doubtless checking whether Carroll Oerstadt– Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus, perhaps not coincidentally – who was rejected by the US military and is partial to Klan salutes, was pressed into an MKUltra programme at some stage would be on point).

Terry Rossio opined that Tony Scott wanted a surveillance movie rather than a time-travel one (the element of which Scott even suggested be dumped), and you can certainly see the parts that enthuse the director are the Enemy of the State ones, with everyone sitting around monitors getting the skinny (it seems both Scott and Denzel Washington quit the production over wrangles at various points). 

Rossio’s screenplay, co-written with Bill Marsilii, had sold for a whopping $3m – which surely ought to soften the grouch factor a little – but Jerry Bruckheimer then packaged it with Tony and Denzel; a guarantee to get it made, but not necessarily with fidelity to the core. Per Rossio, “Jerry acknowledged there were issues with Tony, but wouldn’t budge on his choice. ‘I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light,’ he said. ‘It’s not my job to not make movies’”. The screenwriter’s verdict was that “Tony Scott added nothing to Déjà Vu and made several hundred small mistakes and about 8 or 9 deadly mistakes” (it bears noting that Terrio hasn’t actually seen the movie but felt Scott blithely ignored important plot details when he had something else he wanted to do instead).

So how does it play? Well, its least effective aspect is actually getting bogged down in the “fall for the girl and save her” element that was Marsilii’s inspiration for the writers’ collaboration (Rossio had the time-window concept premise). Paula Patton’s Claire’s an entirely functional presence for much of the proceedings (a mutilated corpse), and there’s never any hint of chemistry with her 20-years-older co-star; this means anything “heartfelt” regarding ATF Special Agent Douglas Carlin’s quest is empty rhetoric (it would have made more sense to save the partner Doug – also unwittingly – sent to his doom, but the window is always closed by the time he determines it’s time for some timestream action). 

Denzel’s dependable, but he’s more engaging early on, when he sees the investigation as just another ATF job. Caviezel delivers the thankless fanatic thing serviceably (he’s more commonly labelled an actual fanatic these days, what with crediting QAnon as valid and protesting child trafficking with Sound of Freedom); it’s understandable if erroneous that his character Carroll – “Is this a he or she?” – Oerstadt should elicit some confusion over whether he has an inkling of what’s going on due to his claim of foreknowledge, of having “seen what’s coming” (“I have a destiny, a purpose… anyone who tries to alter that destiny will be destroyed. Anyone who tries to stop it from happening will cause it to happen, and that’s what you don’t understand”). It seems there were intentional nods towards Timothy McVeigh, of the 9/11 false-flag precursor Oklahoma City bombing (who may or may not be an FBI guy to whom McVeigh bears a resemblance). 

Chunky Val’s good (as Agent Pryzwarrra), in one of his last mainstream Hollywood movie roles; it’s a shame his character takes a back seat as Déjà vu develops, since his and Denzel’s scenes have that certain cachet of decent actors enjoying playing off each other. Adam Goldberg does quirky guy (“We need more cowbell”), and Erika Alexander and Elden Henson provide tech support (very Enemy of the State). Bruce Greenwood’s also on hand to object to stuff.

Obviously, if such tech existed, even assuming all these home-soil terrorist incidents were genuine, sorting them out would be very low on the priority list for its application. They certainly wouldn’t be haphazardly scheduling crime-scene investigations when they could be developing the tech to send people safely back in time, or to extend the arbitrary window of 4 days and 6 hours (actually, this is probably the best conceit here, since it establishes distinctive ground rules that allow the movie to stand out from the time-travel crowd, however much Scott may stylistically blur them into just another ’00s Scott movie with Denzel). 

Tony does the Tony thing, but after a good-to-great ’90s run (well, okay, not so much The Fan or the ones released in 1990), he plumbed for a string of marginal scripts with a production-line approach that was reflected in their reception (all of them were costly, and none of them came within sight of clearing the prescribed x3 budget multiple for seeing a glimmer of profit). There’s a standard Harry Gregson-Williams Bruckheimer score that doesn’t really gel, and Paul Cameron’s photography is undistinguished (it basically looks like every Scott movie at this point). There’s a solid concept-driven car chase where Doug, in reader goggles, pursues Oerstadt from four days prior (Scott wasn’t satisfied with the execution, it seems), but the death of Doug at the end seems less essential than it is a justification of the title.

There’s evidently an intent to get into the free will vs determinism debate here, and invoking God – possibly a tasty bait for Denzel – is key to this, albeit ultimately subsumed beneath Tony’s patented, punchy, HI-NRG delivery. Both the bad guy (“Satan reasons like a man, but God thinks of eternity”) and Doug strain for something more than the limitations of physics in temporal causality (“Okay, something spiritual” responds Goldberg’s Denny, who later affirms “I also believe in God. Just don’t tell anyone”). Rossio concurs with this element when he notes “it is revealed that we – happily – don’t live in a set determined universe, that acts of free will can always change the future”. Well, sort of.

Doug: We changed one thing, but by changing one thing, we didn’t change anything.

The movie initially appears to be suggesting a closed loop, whereby nothing Doug does in attempting to change the course of events does anything at all; or rather, his actions are intrinsically incorporated into events and “always” have been (which, clearly, makes no sense in a strictly cause-and-effect fashion, as there had to be a timeline where events unfolded to a point prior to his involvement). Thus, his attempts to warn himself of the bomb threat, through transporting a piece of paper to the past, are intercepted by partner Larry, who is then murdered by Carroll (so explaining the retrieval of Larry’s car from the scene of the earlier ferry disaster).

Shanti: The traditional view of time is linear, like a river, flowing from the past towards the future.
Agent Pryzwarra: Say we do create this new branch. What happens to the old one to this one? 
Denny: Ask the radical!
Shanti: Well, it might continue parallel to the new branch. Most likely, it ceases to exist.
Denny: The idea is we cease to exist, alright? Or this version of us, anyway. Umm, we never came here, we didn’t meet Doug, we don’t remember it ever happening.

In fact, we are looking at perhaps the most satisfying – in terms of satisfying movie logic while attempting to tell a story with consistent and moored protagonists – version of time travel here. Which is to say, the multiverse is not, as I understand it, how time travel actually works, but it’s the most plausible if you also want an engagingly coherent movie. The irony of this is that “Creating multiple futures” (Terrio) means the assessment of free will is only pertinent up to a point. 

There will always be at least a version of events where it has been impossible to save Claire; as this chart suggests, the movie requires 4 timelines at minimum to make sense – Terrio: “the theory I always held to: the movie portrays at least the second time the events have occurred” – three of these taking place prior to the events we see and two of them involving Claire’s death (if Doug had never got involved, there would have been no dead Claire, but also no saved ferry, ultimately). 

Consequently, given there are now “multiple futures”, these parallel timelines continue to exist with Claire dead (in one of them, at least, there are dead Claire, Larry, Doug and the passengers). Shanti’s suggestion that the old branch “Most likely, it ceases to exist” can’t be right, unless you’re happy to tell your time travel with a host of causal paradoxes (which, let’s face it, many are. And if you’re going to refute parallel timelines, you’re going to need the instigator/protagonist repeating their initial timeline overwriting actions in each new timeline, ad infinitum). As explained, the method involves “folding space back onto itself in a higher dimension to create an instant link between two distant points” (with the metaphor of a piece of paper common to such illustrations). The dimension invocation is notable; both vague and cosmic (God, again).

Rossio claimsin fact there are no plot holes at all, and scrutiny reveals the plot to be air tight. We had years to think of all this and work it out”. Consequently, the moment – crucial in Doug’s understanding as we see it – where the laser shines into the past, apparently contradicting that the device needs to send them back, is “Because Tony says so”. That said, however, they appear to trip up on hypotheticals, such that Marsilii avers the team should have been able to help back-in-time Doug (such as, for instance, sending a gun through to him): “I made that suggestion and was practically shouted down. ‘Too hard to understand, too complex, too difficult!’”. 

The problem encountered here is whether the team should even be able to view the new timeline being created (with the paper, with Doug in it?) They’re viewing the old one. Unless they too are part of a new timeline that captures the new-old timeline (even hypothetically, I don’t think this scans, however). As one of the posters suggested, “if the divergent timelines co-exist and don’t replace each other – then surely the guys watching Doug are still watching him from the timeline in which Claire is still dead”. He received the writers’ thunderous silence in response.

At any rate, this means of playing things out is vastly preferable to an approach such as TimeCrimes’, where the protagonist laboriously rehearses all the things he previously saw himself do; I had a flash of horror of this with the “U can save her” message. The other fictional work this slightly reminded me of was the horrifically implausible Crime Traveller, a one-and-done season of which appeared on BBC1 in 1997. Events there are a closed loop, so the investigators can go back and retrieve clues but not influence the outcome (there are logistical failings a mile wide with this).  Like Déjà vu, though, the window of travel is a limited one: generally, in the area of hours, and they go back no more than 24 (I think).

Which leads us to its real-world analogue. I’m not suggesting Déjà vu is soft disclosure, at least any more than any other time-travel yarn, but Donald Marshall did detail the workings of Project Pegasus. To his understanding, this involved using the Hadron Collider to collide protons to achieve a Groundhog Day effect: “First collision sets the start date… Then day or 2 later if they collide again they go back, whole universe goes back to the original collision...” In contrast to the preceding regarding recollection of timelines, Marshall related how only those with chips in their heads could recall the continued resets: that is, experience déjà vu. In this example, the parameters appear to be set by the most recent collision of the Collider, but whether there’s an actual limit on that – is a month’s gap too much, say – he didn’t confirm. 

Déjà vu’s premise is an intriguing one, then, but it becomes only a so-so movie under Scott’s custodianship. Looper – conceptually much less satisfying – earned much more attention half-a-dozen years later, but it had the benefit of someone who liked the genre, however much he would (repeatedly) take a dump on it subsequently. Perhaps, if Déjà vu had a helmer sympathetic to the material, they would have encouraged Rossio and Marsilii to push the premise to its limit, rather than yielding a movie constantly in fear of flying above viewers’ heads. 

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