Just for a lark I watched the 2007 action/scifi film “Next” over streaming internet. Not a very good movie, but then it wasn’t trying to be. All it retains from the Philip K. Dick story “The Golden Man” is the idea of a fully precognitive individual – one who can see all possible futures, and continually choose the outcome he likes best. My theory is that the filmmakers, realizing that the source story was unfilmable, considered it a point of pride not merely to dumb it down, but to make the dumbest, most ludicrous version they could think of.
Certainly anyone who watches this film, even if they enjoy it, will come away with that ooky feeling you get when you know your intelligence is being insulted. As if somebody wanted to tell about Albert Einstein, but decided to make it easier by changing “E = MC2” to “E = M + C”.
But I do give these filmmakers credit. An adaptation this over-the-top stupid could not be the result of mere hackery. My theory is that these are people possessed of great skill and finesse who worked hard to ensure that any idea or plot point that might conceivably be good or challenging or thought provoking was carefully excised from the final product. And that the bad ideas, the real howlers, the ones that leave you shaking your poor aching head and thinking “how the hell did this get in?” were lovingly produced and preserved on celluloid – to serve as an eternal testament to the perverse genius of these folks.
And just so that you realize they are doing all of this on purpose, they deliberately leave in one magnificent scene – a wonderful if shameless ripoff of “Groundhog Day” and “51 First Dates” – in which we watch the hero try every possible way to pick up a chick who is light years out of his league, until he hits on the one that will work.
But the idea of an individual who sees and selects from all possible futures is itself a good one, which deserves to be explored more often. I thought Stephen Spielberg and company did an excellent job with Sandra Morton’s character in the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report”. Rightly, her precog was portrayed as something vastly alien, with a psychology utterly unlike any we would recognize. And Morton is one of the few film actresses around with the talent to pull off that kind of role while maintaining the audience’s sympathy throughout.
In some sense, that entire film is built around the masterful scene in the mall when Tom Cruise and Morton are escaping the authorities together. That is not only the point in the film when you realize the awesome power she wields, but also the first time you are allowed to see reality from her bizarre perspective.
Coincidentally I am rereading “Watchmen” after many years, in anticipation of the forthcoming movie release. Alan Moore treats the character of Dr. Manhattan – an omniscient and omnipresent mutant who used to be human, but who now can see into the future and manipulate space and time – as a source of fascination as well as a kind of rueful comedy.
Dr. Manhattan is clearly nonplussed by the ordinary mortals he encounters, as they are nonplussed by him. Their intense drives, their earthly lusts and passions, the fact that things matter to them, these are concepts he has trouble holding onto. The only human challenge still left to him is to avoid drifting away altogether, to remember why anything might actually matter. In spite of his coldness, we care about the character because Alan Moore makes us see that this is a struggle against mortality – for Dr. Manhattan to lose his last vestige of humanness would be to lose all sense of meaning, which is a kind of death.
In contrast, the creators of “Next” have directed Nicholas Cage to do one of his hyperbolic personality riffs – but in this context it makes no sense at all. Cage makes a sincere attempt at a performance, but it’s all just silly. Why would this character show distress and fear about events that he knows will never happen? Why is he getting so worked up when the audience already knows he is never in danger? The whole thing is like watching a movie of somebody else playing a video game – when you already know the game was rigged.