Thursday, 4 January 2007

Déjà vu, dir. Tony Scott (2006)

Please note: the following contains serious spoilers. It's very difficult to talk about without giving away the conceit of the film, so brace yourself or stop reading. Really. If you don't want to read on, for now I'll just say that I highly recommend the film and enjoyed it a lot.

What would you do if you could change the past? If you could travel back in time and do something about some terrible event? Set against the backdrop of an only just recovering post-Katrina New Orleans, Déjà vu opens with an act of domestic terrorism that leaves the city reeling. A ferry boat full of US Navy officers and their families is blown up with over 500 dead. Federal ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) sets about sifting through the debris and his sharp eyes brings him to the attention of FBI agent Andrew Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer). Carlin, we are told, cut his teeth on the Oklahoma bombing case. Pryzwarra assigns him to an elite team of technical wizards who have found a way to bend time, opening a worm-hole into the past that can be viewed on a set of huge monitors in a laboratory. They can see four days ago, in a continuous stream that can cannot be rewound or fast forwarded. So they sit and wait for clues around the bomb site, and will eventually see the bomber actually perpetrate his crime. Then they just arrest him and they’ve solved the crime. Great. But what if they could actually do something about it? What if they could send some sort of a message back to some point in the past so that Carlin could pick it up? What happens if you change the past? The future becomes obsolete, out-dated. Or was it all meant to happen anyway?

The trouble begins when Carlin gets a call about a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), who is found with injuries ostensibly caused by the bomb but a full hour before the bomb actually went off. He investigates and believes that she is somehow crucial to understanding what's going on. And in the post bomb time-line, understanding her behaviour, the message 'U Can Save Her' written with magnetic letters on a noticeboard, all seems impossible but significant. Shortly after, the forensic team tell Carlin his fingerprints are all over the apartment, and put it down to his carelessness on initial investigation. But his fingerprints and blood-soaked swabs are both in the apartment though he'd never been there. Thrilling high-speed chases ensue, with Carlin wearing his time-warp-seeing gizmo on his head and following the bomber back to his hideout. There he watches the past happen before his eyes. When Carlin does manage to send himself back in time he has already experienced the things about to happen in this past future, and he anticipates them. So he changes the future, a future he has already experienced, by averting the explosion and saving Claire. His conversation with the bomber, Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel), creates a sense for Oerstadt of uncanny foreknowledge, a sense that Carlin brings by mentioning things in Oerstadt's FBI questioning in the future. However, in a blaze of bullets this futuristic Carlin gets killled with Oerstadt, while managing to save Clare. And as Claire sits on the shore awaiting questioning by the authorities, Doug Carlin arrives to investigate the explosion. And the future begins again.

Time-travelling is a complicated business, as either Marty McFly in Back to the Future or Hermione and Harry in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban will tell you. The conceit of the film, that the sense of déjà vu is caused by actually having experienced something before, a sense of another parallel experience in a 'many worlds theory'-type existence. But the post-bomb 'present' of the film contains realities that Carlin will change, it already contains the alternative past (his bandages and evidence of his presence in the apartment), though he has not actually returned to the past yet. It is as if many pasts are being lived at once within a complex multi-temporal present. Within this present Claire is both dead and alive. (I wonder is a bit like Shroedinger's Cat? If time-travel is going to happen it will be with quantum physics.)

Needless to say there is a huge amount of wish fulfillment in such a film. It's poignant. The great unspoken act of terrorism in the film is 9/11. Imagine being able to return and change that? What kind of present would we now be living? Can we still live that present? By changing the present do we not also, in a way, change the past? To understand the possibilities that surround us in the present is also to understand the complexity of the past, and visa versa. To slip in and out of the past and present is, perhaps, what is most politically subversive about this film, what challenges everyone about what it is they experience and how it has come about.

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