Looking back at Next

We take a look back at the Nic Cage sci-fi thriller Next, a deeply flawed film with a few decent ideas at its core...

Of all the various adaptations of Philip K Dick novels and short stories churned out by Hollywood since the author’s death in 1982, Lee Tamahori’s Next is surely the loosest. Based on the novelette, The Golden Man, first published in 1954, Next excises the original story’s post-apocalyptic setting, mutants and gold-skinned protagonist, in favour of a more straightforward sci-fi thriller vehicle for actor, Nicolas Cage.

The one element that Next retains from The Golden Man is its hero’s name (Cris) and his ability to look into the near future. In Next, Cris is a louche, lank-haired Las Vegas magician who performs under the stage name Frank Cadillac. When he’s not lounging around smoking and drinking cocktails, he uses his precognitive abilities in his performances, in which he guesses audience members’ names and predicts when a girl’s necklace is about to fall from her neck.

After a brief yet compelling introduction, in which Cris cheats at blackjack and foils a robbery attempt, along comes Homeland Security agent, Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), to set up the rest of the film. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, a group of European terrorists has stolen a nuclear bomb, and plans to set it off somewhere in Los Angeles.

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Ferris has zeroed in on Cris as the one person who can locate the bomb before it’s detonated. While Cris protests that his abilities are too limited to be useful (he can only see the future as it directly affects him, and only two minutes ahead), Callie will not be dissuaded, and begins to pursue Cris across the entire state of California, until he submits to her will.

Before he goes on the run, Cris takes a brief stop off at his favourite diner. He’s been having dreams about a woman he’ll meet there who, for reasons that are (again) never explained, will allow him to see infinitely far into the future, as long as he’s near her.

Following repeated, Groundhog Day-style attempts to win Liz’s favour, Cris finally finds a tactic that works, which involves losing a fight with her aggressive ex-boyfriend. Liz (a miscast Jessica Biel) then agrees to give Cris a lift to Flagstaff, Arizona, unaware that both the US government and several terrorist assassins are in pursuit. (Yet again, it’s never explained how the terrorists know who Cris is, but they’ve somehow learned that he poses a threat to their plans to blow up the west coast of America.)

If that brief synopsis sounds sketchy, it’s only slightly more rushed and garbled than the film itself, which hastily sets up acres of backstory in a few brief sentences. Cris very briefly hints, in an early conversation with Callie, that he was tested on by scientists as a child, which suggests a greater depth to his character that is then studiously ignored for the rest of the film.

Cris’ character actually changes quite abruptly once Next‘s relentless pursuit begins. Introduced as a slightly slouchy individual, who enjoys a drink or two, he later strips off his shirt to reveal that he’s actually a buff man of action who’s handy in a fight. The seedy Nic Cage of Bad Lieutenant gives way to the Nic Cage of The Rock or Con Air. It’s as though Cage starts the film with enthusiasm, before losing interest and reverting to the kind of somnambulant acting he’d later employ in Season Of The Witch. To paraphrase the actor’s hero, Elvis Presley, Cage has left the building.

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Next‘s muddled characters and plot, no doubt, occurred during the numerous revisions to its script. Writer Gary Goldman’s earlier drafts saw Callie and her agents as uncaring antagonists, and willing to do physical harm to Cris to get him to cooperate. There are still echoes of this in the final movie, particularly in a scene that clumsily references A Clockwork Orange. Captured and strapped to a chair, his eyes clamped open, Cris is forced to watch a news broadcast and describe what he sees next.

In spite of this traumatic infringement of his human rights, Cris later allies himself with Callie, and the incident is never referred to again, largely because the film’s final third is too stuffed with explosions and shootouts with identikit terrorists.

Speaking of explosions and shootouts, director Lee Tamahori never manages to conjure up an action scene as unusual or engaging as the relatively low-key one that occurs near the start of the film. On the run from casino security staff, Cris uses his second sight to predict his pursuers’ movements, taking nimble, last-second turns through a maze of fruit machines and bustling gamblers.

After that early flash of inspiration, Next never relocates its creative muse, and the intrigue generated from these early scenes soon ebbs away once the film’s generic thriller premise becomes clear. We don’t need Cris’ powers of second sight to divine that love interest Liz will eventually be taken hostage by the villains, or that the hero will eventually find a clever way of preventing California from disappearing beneath a mushroom cloud.

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Once the rules of Cris’ powers are established, Tamahori begins playing fast and loose with them. Able to see every possible outcome within his immediate vicinity, it’s later revealed that Cris can use his abilities to beat any opponent in hand-to-hand combat, locate the whereabouts of booby traps and snipers, and even dodge bullets. Cris is, essentially, a man playing a videogame by trial and error, ruling out all the possible scenarios that will result in death or injury until he finds a path through time that leads to safety. (In a 2004 draft of Goldsman’s script, one character remarks, on seeing footage of Cris escaping from a casino, “You pulled me out of a conference call to show me a videogame?”)

And then we come to the conclusion, which critics variously described back in 2007 as “a stunning cheat”, and “one of the most infuriating endings ever”. I won’t describe the ending in detail here, for the sake of anyone who’s anxious to see Next on one of its inevitable late-night Channel 5 showings, but it’s far from satisfying, even if it’s one of the film’s few plot developments that does make a modicum of sense.

So, given that the film’s script is muddled, that Jessica Biel is far too young to play Cage’s beau, and that the story falls apart towards the end, why even bother to look back at a film as messy as Next?

The answer is that, beneath the chaos of script rewrites, the bad special effects and Tamahori’s indifferent direction, there’s the germ of a good film trying to get out. If Cage’s character had remained as he was at the beginning, a faintly seedy, struggling entertainer with powers of second sight, scarred by cruel treatment at the hands of the government, the film could have been far more engrossing.

The premise of a man doomed to be pestered by those seeking to exploit his abilities is a great one, and is crying out for exploration in an indie movie rather than a Hollywood thriller. (Such a film may, in fact, exist. Do let me know if it does, dear reader).

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Even Next‘s relentless scenes of pursuit could have been rendered more gripping had more time been spent on establishing the terrorists’ identities and motivations. Instead, their role is almost nonexistent, and their actions take place almost exclusively away from the camera.

Nevertheless, Next is still a better film than Paycheck, which remains, for me, the worst Philip K Dick adaptation yet made. It’s also better than Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, a vaguely similar sci-fi thriller that came out a year after Next, and is, ironically, completely forgettable.

It’s worth comparing Next with Duncan Jones’ recent sophomore feature, Source Code. Before it was released, the trailers for Source Code hinted at a sci-fi thriller as muddled as Next, and similar in premise. Like Next (and, for that matter, Déjà Vu), Source Code was about a hero who manipulates time to help prevent a terrorist attack. But unlike those earlier, less satisfying movies, Jones managed to construct an intricate film that, for the most part, established its own rules and stuck to them, and introduced a central character whose plight provoked genuine pathos.

In this respect, you could say that Hollywood’s attempts to make a decent time warp thriller mimicked the protagonist of Next‘s method of solving a problem, by simply making the same film several times until it finally got the formula right.