It’s the second comic-book movie in a row for Nicolas Cage, and no better than the first, “Ghost Rider.” Of course “Next” isn’t really based on a comic—the source is actually a short story by Philip K. Dick—but in this very loose, and rather loony adaptation it might as well be. The original, which was set in a post-apocalyptic future and tried to make some deeper points about human nature within the context of its created universe, has been transformed into an extremely simple-minded present-day chase movie about a guy with some highly circumscribed powers of pre-cognition recruited by the government to track down a group of terrorists armed with a nuclear bomb. The script also adds to the mix a romantic subplot for the reluctant hero (and a damsel-in-distress for him to save). It’s entirely possible for a movie based on One Big Dumb Idea to be junky fun. But any chance “Next” might have had is blown to smithereens by plot holes the size of the majestic mountain canyons where some of the action is set, and by a performance by Nicolas Cage that’s one part self-parody to two parts sleepwalking.
Cage plays Cris Johnson, a fellow born with the ability to see into the future, but only two minutes ahead, and then only events that are directly related to him. (The sole exceptions are visions of a girl whom he foresees meeting in a diner at some date further in the future.) Fearing being treated as a crank or used for some nefarious purpose by powers-that-be, he conceals his talent as second-rate magician Frank Cadillac in a stage show at a lesser Las Vegas casino.
But his capability has not gone unnoticed by hard-boiled FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), who’s part of a team tracking a group of terrorists planning to set off an old Russian nuclear device somewhere in California. Despite the dismissive attitude of her barking boss to the idea, she believes that Cris could give the government at least a brief heads-up prior to the explosion and, perhaps, the chance to prevent it. So she aims to find him and get him to cooperate—a plan that’s complicated by his ability, as we’re shown in a highly choreographed sequence in which he avoids casino guards sicked on him by security head Roybal (Jose Zuniga), to outfox pursuers by knowing their moves in advance and taking evasive action, and also by his discovery of that girl he’s been dreaming about—a lovely young thing named Liz (Jessica Biel), with whom he escapes Vegas.
Callie and the feds eventually find Cris, but so do those awful terrorists, who for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, decide to track him down too, and they capture Liz, with whom he’s quickly established quite a close relationship, in order to use her as bait to lure him out of hiding.
It would be fruitless to try to understand what happens from this point from any logical point of view, since the picture pretty much abandons even its own frayed rulebook whenever plot twists demand it. (As far as I can make out, Cris’ powers of foresight come to extend indefinitely past the two-minute point whenever that’s required to get to the next scene.) It’s far easier to catalogue the many places it goes wrong along the way. One problem is with the terrorists, who—for reasons of political correctness, no doubt—are depicted, curiously enough, as speaking French and German and whose motives are never even remotely suggested, apart (one supposes) pure malice. Another has to do with Callie’s belief that somebody like Cris could help her mission at all, if she really knows he can only see a couple of minutes ahead. And the movie’s constant recourse to the wizened device of showing us something bad happening, only to “surprise” us by going back to step one with the implicit explanation that what we’ve just seen is one of Cris’ futuristic visions and then offering a narrative variant, gets very old very fast. It’s effectively nothing more than the technique so often used in soap operas of dramatizing characters’ fantasies—the “It was only a dream” business that doomed “Dallas”—and is no better here than in those instances, especially when it’s so overemployed—you might be willing to accept it once, but by the tenth time it’s really become a bore.
But the biggest brain-busters are more basic. How Cris could possibly react with such precision in the “present” to a constant stream of information reaching him from two minutes later presents an insurmountable obstacle. What new power allows him to split into multiple copies of himself in the final chase sequence, merely to complete a sweep of a warehouse lickety-split, is never explained, nor is why, instead of doing the whole job himself if it’s so easy, he allows a squad of SWAT types to put themselves in danger by searching some areas of the place. The key expedient at one point that allows a character to be shot, and apparently killed, by a distant sniper is ridiculous, since it’s based on the supposition that a crack marksman wouldn’t aim at the head of his victim rather than his (obviously protected) chest. But all these examples pale beside the long, curiously tedious final chase, which culminates in a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you twist that renders all the script’s earlier cheats small potatoes beside the real thing.
“Next” was obviously a bad idea, but the poor execution makes it worse. Cage’s lead turn is embarrassing, an exhibition of quirky world-weariness that’s wearying in all the wrong ways. (You’re likely to be depressed by that scene where he splits into multiple Cages, feeling that one of him is quite bad enough.) Moore, a fine actress in other venues, is equally off her stride as the hard-driving equivalent of the more demure FBI agent she played in “Hannibal.” Some of the scenes of her barking out cliched orders to her underlings are actually risible. As for Beals, she gives a performance of ingenue quality, though she’s getting a bit old not to have proceeded beyond the ingenue level. All the terrorists are scowling caricatures, with Thomas Kretschmann standing out—though not in a good way—as the ultimate bad-guy. Peter Falk shows up inexplicably in a single early scene as a curmudgeonly chum of Cris’s. All he does is his usual shtick, but one still wishes there were more of him. The picture is directed by Lee Tamahori, who’s shown some aptitude for action pieces in the past; but here everything seems either rote or rather slapdash, partially because the numerous special effects are subpar and the cinematography of David Tattersall pedestrian. Mark Isham’s score is nondescript, too.
All one can do after watching a picture like this is to hope that the next movie for all those concerned—performers, crew and viewers—will be better than this one. Foresight says it couldn’t be much worse.