"If you thought it was just a trick of the mind, prepare yourself for the truth," promises the tagline for Déjà Vu. Yet if the movie's fantasy premise purports to offer an "explanation" for one of those nagging, inexplicable impressions we sometimes get, it isn't so much the sense of something having happened before, but rather the creepy feeling that somehow, even in our most private moments, we are being watched.
True, Déjà Vu deals with timelines revisited, events seen and reseen from different points of view, and ultimately the growing sense that all of this has been before. Indeed, the film involves some of the most intricately interconnected time-bending plotting seen in years, with a tightly looped storyline that carefully sets up a long chain of dominoes that have already been toppled. "You don't have to do this," a character tells ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) at a critical juncture, to which he replies, "What if I already have?"
Even some viewers may have a feeling of déjà vu, what with odd bits of God talk and spiritual references juxtaposed with fingers being lopped off, duct-taped faces and prisoners with hands affixed to steering wheels, a kidnapped damsel in deadly distress, and deadly explosions, all in a hypercaffeinated Tony Scott thriller starring a sunglasses-wearing Denzel Washington, set in a down-and-out Mexican/Gulf area city, and featuring a quasi-christological climax.
No, it's not the odious Man on Fire all over again—fortunately, it's quite a bit better than that. To begin with, this time it's the bad guy blowing people up, which is always a good thing. Beyond that, Déjà Vu pursues its science-fiction conceit to some nifty places, including an extraordinary cross-temporal chase scene in which the hero must negotiate traffic in one timeframe while "following" a vehicle more than half a week in the past. Are you thinking fourth-dimensionally yet?
Responsible for all this is a top-secret FBI surveillance technology that—according to the official explanation offered to Carlin—reconstructs an on-the-fly virtual view of the recent past by synthesizing input from all available sources, from satellite photography to local security cameras, into a single, continuous roving image of life as it was four and a half days earlier.
Thus, when post-Katrina New Orleans is rocked by a terrorist bomb, the FBI sets up shop and starts combing through images of the days before the blast for clues. Although Carlin is a lowly ATF officer, an FBI agent named Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) admires his efficient detective work and recruits him to go over the surveillance images with them. "I need someone who can look at a crime scene exactly once," Pryzwarra says, "and tell us what shouldn't be there, what's missing, what matters."
He isn't kidding about the "exactly once" part. Within their surveillance radius, the FBI team can see literally anything happening four days ago—even looking through walls, a bit like in Scott's earlier Enemyof the State, thus allowing agents to peer in on the last hours of a murder victim named Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) as she changes clothes, showers and so forth. All the time, though, the past marches on as relentlessly as the present, and there's a complicated, possibly disingenuous technobabble explanation for why there are no do-overs, no rewinding, no fast-forwarding.
Carlin doesn't mind the view of Claire's boudoir, but he doesn't necessarily buy the feds' technobabble about how the chronoscope works—especially when Claire herself seems aware of something out of the ordinary. "Hello? Hello?" she calls uncertainly, looking around her apartment and then wandering out into the hallway. Later, she makes a note in her diary about "that weird 'I'm being watched' feeling."
Uh oh. So, if I feel like someone's watching me, maybe it's crime investigators in the future trying to piece together what happens to me a few days from now? At least it looks like I don't have to worry about déjà vu—not being a law enforcement official involved in a high-tech crime investigation.
Déjà Vu rides the razor's edge between competing theories of time travel: Can the past really be changed? Or will anything you do in the past turn out to be just part of what already happened anyway? The filmmakers spin a slick, engrossing yarn and ratchet up the suspense effectively, but eventually they write themselves into a corner. At some point, they must choose between one ending that follows from everything we've seen, and another ending that gives viewers what they want. Neither is fully satisfying.
There just might be a way out of this dilemma, if the filmmakers were clever enough to find it. Somewhere along the line there needs to be a key turning point between one possible outcome and another, a domino set to fall one way that winds up tipping another, whether due to unpredictable human choices, or even the "divine intervention" ("something spiritual," something "more than physics") that comes up more than once.
Unfortunately, the film never finds that turning point, and a potentially mind-bending sci-fi tour de force breaks down into a fairly conventional suspense thriller, with the hero racing against time to stop a killer before he strikes. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and the film works well enough on that level. On the other hand, the opening terrorist attack on New Orleans perhaps still hits a bit too close to home, in more ways than one, to effectively set the tone for 90 minutes of escapist excitement.
There are other potential drawbacks. The voyeuristic scenes of Carlin and the FBI agents watching Claire in her apartment are milked to an over-the-top degree, with Claire constantly striking glamour-model poses and perpetually in various states of undress, even though she's just hanging around her apartment. Carlin watches, entranced, with easy listening playing on the soundtrack. Even when we first meet her as a corpse on a slab, Claire is somehow presented as a sex object, a fixed expression on her face that hardly seems indicative of her ghastly death.
Then there's the terrorist (Jim Caviezel), who turns out to be (spoiler alert) a Timothy McVeigh psycho-"patriot" who talks about "human collateral" and "the cost of freedom." As with the neo-Nazi villains in the movie version of The Sum of All Fears, Hollywood's taste in bad guys seems increasingly stale and artificial.
If it isn't the brilliant film it could have been, Déjà Vu still contains enough flashes of that film to make it entertaining while you're watching it. On reflection, though, it feels a bit like a shell game in which the conjuror himself has lost track of where the pea is supposed to be.
One thing you have to say about that FBI chronoscope surveillance technology: With its hyperkinetic, weaving, zooming point of view, it's a plot device tailor-made for Scott's jittery visual style. Never mind Doug Carlin: If the FBI ever really does invent a machine like that, they should call in Tony Scott to operate it.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- When have you wished you could go back in time to change something? Something in your own life, or something on a larger scale? If there are many things you'd want to change, which one would you pick, and why
- If you could go back in time and change something, would you? Would that be "interfering" with God's plan—or could time travel conceivably be part of it
- The black clergyman at the funeral in the film says "God calls back the past." Is this literally true? If not, could it be poetically true? What does this language suggest? If God doesn't let us go back and undo events like September 11, what does he ultimately do about them?
- The villain thinks he is striking a blow for freedom. When, if ever, is violence justified? What is the difference between legitimate violence and terrorism? Is there an objective difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? If so, what
- Is there any overall spiritual or religious dimension to the film as a whole? How, if at all, do all the religious references influence the overall effect? Why do you think they are there?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Déjà Vu is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images and some sensuality. The movie features a massive explosive terrorist attack against a crowded public transportation target. A post mortem scene reveals that a character was tortured and mutilated before being killed, and we later see a character being menaced in the same way while another character suffers a similar murder. There are also voyeuristic scenes of men covertly watching a young woman in various states of undress in her apartment, and another scene features still images of lingerie-clad female figures. Some crass and objectionable language is used.
Photos © Copyright Touchstone & Buena Vista
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/30/06
The last time Tony Scott directed Denzel Washington, moviegoers got the violent revenge thriller Man on Fire, in which an American hero captures and tortures the foreign villains with reckless abandon.
This time, in Déjà Vu, the two cook up more high-energy entertainment, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. This time, Washington plays an agent working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He's a brilliant investigator, but he may not be prepared for the deeper, more complicated waters of his next case, which leads him into a tangled path that wanders back and forth through time.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a smart and sufficiently engaging sci-fi flavored mystery, despite some wormholes in story logic."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) writes, "Déjà Vu wants to be lots of things: a ripped-from-the-headlines, sci-fi, love story, terrorism-themed police action/thriller. … Is it just too much to sustain the story? Sure. Does it all unravel if you think about it too hard? You betcha. Was I on the edge of my seat most of the time anyway … ? OK, yes."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says it's "not a profound work, nor is it head and shoulders above the filmmakers' earlier projects, but Déjà Vu may be the first film from either man to demand a second viewing—not only because of the complicated plot, but because of the existential issues it raises about God, man and foreordination."
"[W]hile Déjà Vu might not be high art, it proved to be an interesting and entertaining movie," says Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn). "I don't think you'll be disappointed."
Mainstream critics are offering a mix of responses—some found it "engaging," others call it "preposterous."
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