I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I love time travel stories. Déjà Vu is a very different time travel story, and I’m annoyed that I never saw it until seven years after its release. I definitely have to get out more often.
Sailors returning from duty take a ferry headed for Canal Street in New Orleans. It’s a floating party, but it’s a party to which one would-be military man, Carroll Oerstadt, was not invited because he was rejected from service for being a little too intense. As he puts it, he was too much of a “patriot.” Instead of joining the party, Oerstadt (Jim Caviazel) blows it up, leaving hundreds of casualties. To him, it’s just necessary collateral damage.
Amongst the bodies retrieved, one defies the others. Claire Kuchevar (Paula Patton) was burned and maimed, as would be expected from such an explosion. Problem is the pathologist determined her time of death to be hours before everyone else. Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an ATF agent, finds this interesting enough to pursue. Once he sees her charred body but not-so-charred face, which includes residue of duct tape across her mouth, he is certain she is an important piece to a the puzzle.
An inspection of her apartment increases her significance. There’s a gun, bloody clothing and towels, and a message on the refrigerator: “you can save her.” Then Carlin, checking her answering machine, hears his own voice returning a call to her that he does not immediately recall making. He brings most of this information to lead Agent McCready (Bruce Greenwood) and his team, which includes Agents Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) and Denny (Adam Goldberg). When they see how easily Carlin takes a pile of circumstantial evidence and pieces together a logical scenario of not only how she died but her possible connection to the bombing, they invite him to join their investigation. It’s not an ordinary investigation.
Carlin is brought to a warehouse with an impressive pile of screens, monitors, lights, and control boards. When he sees a video screen showing the ferry before the bombing, he is beyond baffled when asked to look for clues. They explain that they are looking at the past, 4.25 days to be specific. “Snow White” is the code name for their accidentally developed technology that allows the team to see exactly what was happening, including 360º angles and sound, precisely but constantly 4 days and 6 hours in the past. They’re searching for clues around the ferry area, hoping to find the bomber in the planning stage. Considering they know, or suspect, the bomber also killed Ms. Kochevar, they figure that keeping an eye on her will also show them the bomber. Once they find the bomber’s identity, they can then arrest him. In the present, of course.
What commences is an almost unexplainable – but fun – ride in two points of time as Carlin and the team follow the past while attempting to catch up to a terrorist in the present. That part is about the most unique and unexpected use of time travel in a film since Back to the Future. Trying to find out who did something that hasn’t yet happened almost seems like an estranged branch of the Department of Homeland Security, and perhaps it will be someday. For now, we’ve got Déjà Vu.
There are two aspects that, for me, are the best parts of any time travel story: 1. How it works, and 2. How the person in the past reacts when someone has to say something like, “I’m from the future.” Here, like most of them, director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder), and brother of Ridley Scott, knows he can explain it with fast-talking techno jumble, which we have no choice but to accept. But he doesn’t stop there. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean, CSI)provides seven satellites, a remote viewing system, and a Hummer tough enough to take a direct hit from an 18-wheeler, none of which makes sense nor makes a difference. Some things you just have to accept and then go with it. However, the second aspect was a disappointment. Scott fast forwards, cheating us out of seeing the reaction of a woman who is told a future cop is here to save her. Not fair, Tony. Not fair.
Washington has become as mega-comfortable as any actor ever. Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks, and a few others never seem like they were acting, they were just “being.” Jeff Goldblum also just coasts through a role as if it’s a day at the office, but in a good way. His genuine reactions to the impossibleness of what’s happening are what sell the film. The level to which he takes the time device, proposing untested things to do with it once he grasps its capability, sells it all over again. Especially cool is when Carlin suspects that the people they are spying on in the past might be aware they are being watched. He is told it is not possible, but he clearly doesn’t accept that and tests that non-theory.
Patton (Hitch, Mission: Impossible 3 & 5) is as cute as anyone, appearing both innocent and desirable at the same time and leaving no doubt why Agent Carlin is far deeper than just smitten with her. Kilmer and Goldberg support well as the “by the book” one and the “quirky” one. Caviazel (The Passion of the Christ, Person of Interest) is the terrorist you never want to know, speaking in his own pseudo-philosophical language and leaving you certain that he either knows something we don’t know or he’s just plain nuts.
You can’t have a time travel story without holes in the system, and it seems another hole appears every ten minutes, but they’re forgivable – except one, which is too much of a spoiler to discuss. You can’t have a time travel story without challenging the idea that you can’t affect the past, but then someone does, and then comes the “space-time continuum” and then the questions like “but how would we know if we changed the past because wouldn’t it change our knowledge of the past?” and that’s the kind of stuff you have to put outside with the dog and just enjoy the ride. Teacher gives it a B+
The Good: A very unique time travel story
The Bad: A few forgivable time travel holes
The Ugly: Not “ugly,” but the question you’ll have in the final 30 seconds