Nic Cage in watchable movie shock

There’s something special about trash that works. Next is preposterous rubbish, really, but it’s very well-made rubbish — and a hugely enjoyable thriller. It stars Nicolas Cage, who has to be one of the most annoying actors in movies today, perhaps the most annoying, and yet, somehow, he helps make Next a great deal of exciting fun. I foresee headlines around the world: “Nic Cage in watchable movie shock!” Whatever next?

For a sense of just how preposterous the plot is, get this. Cage’s character is called Cris Johnson (note the missing “h” — it’s almost literary). He can see into the future — but only two minutes at a time. This is called “high concept” in Hollywood. But there’s more. Julianne Moore does her ice-queen act as the FBI agent trying to recruit Cris to help find a stolen nuclear bomb. In the meantime, though, Cris is trying to meet up with the woman he keeps seeing in a vision. When it comes to the woman in question, Liz (Jessica Biel), Cris finds he can see further than two minutes into the future, so that provides some room for complication in plot terms. Oh, yes, and he’s on the run from the cops and casino security after a misunderstanding at the casino’s cashier.

To get it all to function, the makers of Next need to employ the flash-forward. This device is the future-directed version of the flashback, but many filmmakers have discovered that it’s very hard to make it work unless it’s in a sort of spooky context, with clairvoyance and so forth involved. (And again I have occasion to mention Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Don’t Look Now — an example of particularly brilliant use of the flash-forward.)

In Next, the flash-forward is vital, because we’ve got to see Cris’s projections into the future. This is the meat of the plot or plot-to-be. We’ve also got to see the options available to him, because the possible futures keep changing as he acts in response to what he sees. The sequence in which he finally meets the woman of his dreams (or visions), Liz, employs this device to its fullest, and it works very well. It’s even amusing.

Overall, though, one might find it difficult to suspend disbelief in such a storyline. After all, Déjà Vu, the recent Denzel Washington vehicle in which he manages to insert himself into the past, just becomes increasingly risible as it ties itself up in temporal knots while Washington maintains his air of stoical earnestness. Yet, somehow, Next carries it off. Perhaps that’s down to sheer conviction and energy on the part of director Lee Tamahori, who graduated from the gritty realism of Once Were Warriors to the sheeny fantasy of a James Bond adventure, and the skill of scriptwriters Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum.

Next is based on a “novel story” (as the screen credits put it) by Philip K Dick, who has provided Hollywood with many good ideas, though usually they get travestied. Here, Dick’s original piece is barely evident, so we can’t in fact give him much credit for its relative success. The original 1954 story, The Golden Man, is set in a post-apocalyptic future; it is about a golden-skinned mutant with precognitive abilities and, apparently, some special seductive power. He is captured by a government anti-mutant agency, but his abilities allow him to escape and reproduce. This is more like the X-Men movies than Next, which places the precog story in something like the present day, though I refuse to believe the FBI has quite so much surveillance super-technology at its disposal.

Still, Next manages to make a lot out of what little is left of the basic Dick idea (if it can still be called his idea — he had no monopoly on precognition plots). And some credit for its success must go to Cage, though from my perspective somewhat grudgingly. He can be so awful and so irritating in film after film that to see him in a good one is rather shocking. In Next, he is still irritating, with his melancholy countenance and set of mannered quirks, but here it all seems to fall into place, and you find him bearable. You still wish, though, that he had a different face.

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