Friday, April 1, 2011

My Year of Nic Cage: Next

"Next" left me asking a lot of questions. First: how did they get Julianne Moore? She's totally slumming in this high-concept low-rent sci-fi Nic Flick.

Five writers couldn't make sense of a premise that Philip K. Dick introduced in "The Golden Man": a guy has the power to see a few minutes into his future. Nic Cage's Frank Cadillac uses this power for a meager living as a Vegas magician.

His ability is akin to keeping his thumb in the last page of a choose-your-own-adventure book. He can see what will happen, and if it doesn't work out for him, change his course of action. It's an interesting premise, but it's mostly used as a bad gag - like a series of misfired pickup lines until he gets it right.

Rather than explore the positives and negatives of this limited power, writer Gary Goldman and his team turn him into a cowardly superhero. At times he's heroic - he stops a casino robbery - but mostly he's slovenly and unmotivated. A bizarre cameo by Peter Falk suggests that Cage is committing petty crimes all the time - even though all the casino bosses and cops know who he is.

He's also chicken-shit, selfish and sort of pervy most of the movie. But when he decides to (or the writers need some punch-up), he takes out a small army platoon, walks through bullets and guides a SWAT team to victory. He's invincible but unapologetically lazy.

"Next" starts with two plot points: Nic Cage is having visions of a girl he doesn't know (which means he can see farther than the normal two minutes into the future when she's involved) and terrorists have a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Julianne Moore's FBI agent knows about Cage's power - though we have no idea how the FBI knows he's more than an act, or why they think he can help them if he can only see two minutes ahead.

Even more inexplicable is that the terrorist organization (whose only criminal motivation seems to be its collection of vaguely Euro-accents) also knows Cage has a secret power, so it's after him too. These terrorists are monitoring every move the FBI makes and are much more sophisticated than the feds - why are they bothering with Cage?

Cage convinces the piscine Jessica Biel to drive him to Flagstaff after "saving" her from her ex. Why she agreed to take him is inexplicable. Cage's motivation to get laid is much stronger than his motivation to save 8 million people. It's even more inexplicable that, after Moore tells Biel that the Feds and a terrorist cell are trying to capture Cage and that he's a manipulative sociopath, Biel still sides with him.

Yeah, OK.

The writers use other stupid tricks to remind viewers of Cage's power. When they get turned around by a mudslide (topical!), a construction worker tells Cage how to backtrack to a hotel. Before he can finish, Cage interrupts him with the name of the hotel. Later, the FBI is able to find Cage because the construction worker reported how weird it was that he finished his sentence. Like it's shocking that he knew the name of a hotel he just drove past. Or that he might be from the area. (Also, why didn't he turn around before he got to the roadblock if he knew it was closed?)

The FBI's shocking ineptitude is only matched by huge breaks in their reporting. Armed only with the knowledge that Cage left the diner with a woman, they scanned traffic light cameras in the area and spotted him in the passenger seat. Why can't they find hundreds of armed terrorists at the harbor?

The end is almost interesting, but I left with the realization that Cage's character barely finished the first stage of the hero's journey. It took an entire film for him to overcome his reluctance.

A necessity of high concept sci-fi is to make the rest of the film so utterly believable that the tweaked rules of the film universe are taken for granted. This is why "Inception" and "Children of Men" work so well, and why "Next" falters at nearly every step. If only its writers had some foresight.

Best Line: Cage (as Frank Cadillac): It helps if you don't speak right now.

Fun Fact: "Next" provides the still for that amazing eagle-hair photo.

Nics - 2/10