If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do
Credit where it’s due, I feel no particular need to open with one of those snarky “I feel like I’ve seen this before” puns on the title of Déjà Vu that have been cropping up here and there. In the abstract outline, it does some very familiar things (shit ‘splodes real good), but it does some things that are actually kind of surprising. This does not, I hasten to point out, mean that Déjà Vu is a good film, only that it if you accident your way into watching it, there’s actually quite a lot that’s interesting.
This isn’t really surprising: it was directed by Tony Scott, who in an unrecognisably bent way is one of the geniuses of cinema. And while Déjà Vu doesn’t go so far in its stylistic radicalism as Man on Fire (full disclosure: I only saw it on cable, full-frame) or Domino (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it at all; but dude, the trailer!) it’s still got visual energy to burn.
Shame it’s pure evil.
I don’t like subjecting movies to ideological purity control (and I have no doubt that there will be more to say on that when I see Apocalypto in 16 hours), but there’s “this movie tends towards the conservative” and there’s “this movie seems to labor under the belief that every human being of Mexican descent is an affront to God,” and if Déjà Vu doesn’t quite hit that level of Man on Fire cultural paranoia, it’s still deeply objectionable in almost every possible way.
It’s set in post-Katrina (and how!) New Orleans, where tough ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) finds himself investigating the explosion of a ferry and the deaths of more than 500 persons. Now, the film was to be set in New Orleans from the get-go, and indeed the hurricane interrupted pre-production; you would never ever know that from the finished product. From its very foundations, this is a film that exploits the city at every turn.
Why be surprised? Tony Scott is one of our most exploitive filmmakers; he is a pornographer of exploitation. In the first five minutes he reminds us of this fact, lingering on heavy-handed shots of dolls floating in the water, and loving slow-motion pans across the faces of children and families that are soon to be burning in terrorist death. And once the bomb explodes, he keeps doing it, showering us with loving slow-motion pans across burning bodies diving into the water, in what can only be regarded as a deliberate visual evocation of 9/11. There is much of this throughout the film, always shown in the same glamourous product-shot style, always of destruction and mayham, always keenly disgusting. The effect is very much like watching the footage of victims jumping from the World Trade Center, and suddenly being aware of a soft thwapthwapthwap next to you; when you turn, there’s Tony Scott, jerking off as he watches the bodies fall.
Calling the movie distasteful isn’t enough by half; yet it’s still not nearly so problematic as Man on Fire. I guess I shouldn’t pretend that I was expecting any different.
Turning to the good, which is solely in the realm of style: for the first time that I’ve seen, Scott’s more-MTV-than-MTV style is actually pretty appropriate for the story being told. The gimmick, you see (and the source of the not terribly accurate title), is that the government has a magic surveillance wormhole that can see back in time 4.5 days, and the disjointed, oh-so-kinetic filming techniques Scott uses actually make a lot of sense within the world of the film. The best part of the whole movie is a setpiece that I hesitate to spoil: Carlin is wearing a set of goggles that can see into the past, driving with one eye covered and one open, chasing a suspect four days ago as he dodges the present traffic. It’s amazing to look at and legitimately exciting, and not much at all like anything else I can name, and it would make one hell of a video game. There are a few other well-done sequences, the best of which uses the “you have to go back in time because you already did” trope of time-travel stories to phenomenal effect, as we learn how a crime scene got the way it did.
Too bad that the rest of the script by noble hack Terry Rossio and debuting Bill Marsilii wants so badly to wear its contempt for the audience on its sleeve. There has never been a flawless time-travel movie (some short stories are, but they’re all far too depressing for a Hollywood film), but rarely does any science fiction movie – nay, any movie where science exists at all – so boldly give the viewer the finger. The rules are set up, and they are very implausible, but also very precise; then the story violates all of the rules. The film is positively gleeful about it. It’s waving its hands and shouting “this is all a load of crap, and you’re a jerk for paying money for it, jerk!”
In fact, this might be the most openly contemptuous film ever produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and why don’t we all sit back and think of how enormous that statement is.
But you know? You get what you expect. It’s by the most openly conemptuous director in Hollywood.