Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in Don't Let Go, a cop is able to communicate across time with a dead relative and feed her the information to change her own time frame, thus altering his future; in so doing, he both hopes to prevent her death and solve a confounding murder mystery. It is fucking mind-blowing to me that this scenario has been filmed before, give or take the gender of the dead person.

Whatever else we can say about Frequency, a family drama tearjerker/serial killer crime thriller from 2000, it is peculiar. For one thing, it is both a tearjerker and a serial killer thriller, and I don't think it so much as crosses its mind that this might not be the best combination of genres. Perhaps that's why it combines them so horrendously badly.

So here's where we start: in October 1969, loving family man, firefighter, and lifelong Queens resident Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) died heroically in a burning building. Thirty years later, his cop son John (Jim Caviezel) is lost; his girlfriend has just broken up with him, correctly noting that he's a ghost, lost in his own head and memories. We are to understand that these two events are related. And they're about to become much more related, because John, goaded by his lifelong friend Gordon (Noah Emmerich - Jim Caviezel and Noah Emmerich, in one movie? Christ, it must have been 2000), breaks out his dad's old ham radio and pokes around with it, until he hears an oddly familiar voice. Turns out that the presence of an unusually far south occurence of the aurora borealis in the New York skies has triggered some magical realism, because Frank and John are able to talk using the radio, separated by thirty years to the second. John figures this out first - he realises that Frank's odd habit of talking about the 1969 World Series in the present tense isn't just the affectation of a particularly rabid Mets fan - and makes his inevitable first wish on the monkey's paw, screaming at the disbelieving, upset Frank how the older man is going to die, when, and what specifically to do in order to prevent it. Frank refuses to take this seriously, but the very next day, he finds himself at the exact building where John said he'd be. And so he doesn't make one certain decision, thereby managing to save himself as well as every human endangered by the fire.

Such a nice little short film! It has a curiously ambivalent ending - Frank didn't die of a fire in 1969, he died of lung cancer in 1989, so 36-year-old John is still sad and rudderless - but it gets at the heart of any good father/son melodrama. Quaid, despite being in over his head with a Queens accent (my best attempt at rendering his very first lines of dialogue: "Wat, an' miss the Wahrld Series? Nawtta chance."), is a tremendously good grounding presence, bringing warm fatherliness where it's needed, and a distinct sense of harsh temper when it will help to nudge the sentiment into something less goopy and more truthful about the difficulties of people. Caviezel is good enough not to significantly fuck up the atmosphere that the 1969 scenes establish. Gregory Hoblit, a director prone to matter-of-fact hackwork as well as films with single-word titles starting with the letter "F" (see also: Fallen from 1998, and Fracture from 2007. And you can certainly emphasise Primal Fear to put all the weight on the second word), handles all of this with a peculiar tonelessness, framing the moment when John first realises that what his father does in the past can change his own present (he sees a 30-year-old scorch mark suddenly appear on their shared desk) with a flat directness I can only think to describe as an incurious Spielbergian quality; he aims the camera in that particular late-'90s way that coos "cine-magic is about to happen!" but also remains detached enough from it that the sense is less "oh damn, this is cine-magical!" and more "huh. Well then". Which he does a lot, for that matter: the film's opening shot is a pan from the surface of the sun to the infinity of stars , which curiously resolve themselves into straight lines, which dissolve into the lights running along the Queensboro Bridge. It's a perfect distillation of the cosmic into the quotidian that exactly summarises what Hoblit and crew are up to: translating the fantastic magic of Toby Emmerich's screenplay into the blunt form that a pair of working-class Queens boys might make of it. I don't know that I necessarily approve of this always (though I do really like that opening shot), and I wonder if it's an actual choice, or simply Hoblit coasting, but it does something, at least. There is sentiment here, but it is filtered through its gruff, tough characters, and it works - the moment when John sees that a picture of him and his mom has become a picture of him and his parents is more touching than it might have been exactly because the film hasn't done much to go all-in on its corny touches.

So not perfect, but extremely satisfying, and a keen demonstration of how sometimes, shorter is better. It's only about 30 or 35 minutes long, but it uses that time well, telling a full emotional story in a crisp, tidy way.

Tragically, Frequency is, in fact, 118 minutes long, not 35.

And what happens after Frank gets his 20-year stay of execution is one of the most jarring shifts in tonality that I can think of - all the more jarring since Frequency didn't even seem to have a tone to shift. By the end of his first night after having saved Frank, John discovers, to his dismay, that he now recalls that his mother was killed 30 years ago by a serial killer. And that event is what drove him to become a cop, hoping he could crack the still-impenetrable case of the Nightingale. He also, by the way, remembers that the Nightingale used to only have a body count of three women, not ten, which means that somehow, his muddling about with history has resulted in the loss of seven human lives.

And so our sentimental man-tears melodrama turns into a bonkers police procedural, with 1999 cop John feeding 1969 non-cop Frank details about where the Nightingale will strike next that unfortunately makes it seem awfully much to the other people in 1969 like Frank might himself be the Nightingale. This involves both generations of Sullivan men contending with noble cop Satch DeLeon (Andre Braugher, looking delightfully hammy in the 50% of his screentime where he has old-age makeup on), while trying to keep Frank's wife/John's mother Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) out of the path of the killer. Because in the age-old logic of movies, those other six women John has inadvertently murdered are too bad, but it only really matters that he gets his mom back.

This new film mostly works in reference to itself (but only mostly: the final few scenes are a jarring pile-up of arbitrary twists for the sake of twisting, making not a shred of sense in light of the rules that have thus far governed the film's time manipulation, and it's probably this and this alone that makes me nudge the film down across the line separating "basically good" from "basically bad"). There's something sufficiently crafty about watching the characters pass information back and forth across time, often without even directly being able to communicate it; it has the satisfying "click" that comes from solving a puzzle in a time travel video game. If that comparison suggests that it becomes less interesting as a character drama, than good, I've done my work: for certainly, the emotional stakes get flattened into a generic police problem to solve (John is surprisingly unmoved that his actions have led to his mother's brutal murder, once the scene where he learns this fact has been dealt with), and the warm father/son vibe of the beginning mostly blinks out of existence, reducing the characters to just a fireman and just a cop.

The problem is that the new film doesn't remotely work with the original film; the first 25% of Frequency is simply a different movie altogether, and the massive shift doesn't ever settle. It's clear that the police procedural was always the goal: the odd lack of magic in the magical realism of the first part makes more sense when we find that it's just the prologue to a bog-standard serial killer hunt. But the police procedural isn't as good; the fantasy fueling the first quarter and the last scene is of a much sweeter, gentler register than anything that happens anywhere in the film's actual plot, and much more rewarding. And so, Frequency offers us the rare spectacle of a film that works for virtually all of its running time on a scene-by-scene basis, but also completely fails to work as a holistic object.