Deja vu Tony Scott

By Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson

Regularly dismissed by critics as an ADD action hack director, Tony Scott’s sixth collaboration with Jerry Bruckheimer has a title that can be taken as a provocation: Déjà Vu seems to invite glib puns about the recurrence of heated fast cuts and heavily filtered celluloid, of slick surfaces and pretzel plot twists wrapped around eye-popping explosions. Yes it delivers, but never mind that the director, for all his constant flash and stylishness, has long moved on from mere action work towards ambivalent psychological thrillers, employing an expressionist visual style corresponding to heightened emotions: his themes and structures cry out for old-school auteurist appreciation. Maybe the comparative restraint and metaphysical bent of Scott’s masterpiece, a surveillance-era post-Hitchcock concoction that dares to begin with a nine-minute bravura sequence of dialogue-free “pure cinema, ” will help viewers see past the prejudices—though the incomprehension that greeted the magnificent, if meddlesome biopic-atomizer Domino a year ago, makes it doubtful. Ironically, it’s one of the most mind-boggling action sequences of recent years, in which some of the great Scott’s (henceforth referred to as Tony to avoid mix-ups with his pretentious brother) (1) major motifs are condensed into one awesome pile-up of overlapping motion. Time to cut to the chase.

Discombobulated ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) races through post-Katrina New Orleans traffic, wearing some futuristic gadget, the “goggle ring, ” one eye covered by a mirror-like device, chasing a terrorist bomber’s truck—four days and six hours in the past! Even more outrageous, as Carlin’s retro-vision breaks down, he blindly has to follow the directions of other agents who can still see the transmission, wildly swerving through the “real” daytime traffic while chasing the “virtual” nighttime villain—what was already a maddening split-view of alternate realities and disjointed time is given another twist as it’s pushed out of the realm of first-hand control.

“Control is an illusion, ” Kidman already said to Cruise’s NASCAR driver way back in Days of Thunder (1990), and in hindsight it seems an announcement of themes, even style. Ironically, it also applies to the director’s experience on the movie itself: Rushed into theatres, it left him with little time to edit “over a million feet of film” and the depressive insight, “I was just a hired gun.” Is it a coincidence that quite a bit of Tony’s later work can also be seen as allegorical of filmmaking and its power struggles, or the problems inherent in, pace The Fan (1996), taking one for the team? What drives Crimson Tide (1995) if not an explicit battle for the direction of the sub (and, more roundabout, over the interpretation of reality)? And dubious image-production abounds, be it the satellite surveillance in Enemy of the State (1998) or the reality TV shenanigans in Domino (2005).

Even more upfront is the case of the fantastic machine used for investigation in Déjà Vu that turns (even more top-secret) surveillance footage to a window back in time for plot purposes, but clearly is foremost present as an equivalent of The Movies—it’s even named Snow White. Pointedly, Tony extends the idea to the visual media shaping contemporary experience, TV and internet broadcasts. The ridiculous quasi-science banter “explaining” Snow White expressly stresses the analogy: space (like time) may be folded in on itself, but it sure is flat, like a screen. And in a Tony Scott film, no screen is as great as the Jumbotron—already prominently featured in his superlatively incorrect Shane-Black-actioner The Last Boy Scout (1992) and the first Scott Free production, the underrated The Fan. Yet size serves to emphasize here: the growing romantic attachment of the loner Carlin as he follows the footage of a dead woman’s life, while discussions about the nature and ethics of movies, themselves windows to the past, ensue among agents and scientists, with the huge image presiding over the room. And of course the looming size of the screen approximates the condition of present-day viewing: a similar intrusion on privacy, as envisioned in Rear Window (1954), was a first-hand, cozy neighbourhood affair. Over 50 years later, Déjà Vu reframes it to fit the current era of second-hand, Jumbotron “reality.”

As an allegory about filmmaking and morality this may be as blatant as Minority Report (2002), but it’s more successful on every level: despite all the high-tech lure the grandstanding is undercut from the beginning. Where Spielberg’s omnipotent pretty-boy stand-in is composing his images from near-unlimited resources and with a graceful conductor’s movements, Scott’s collaborative team must content themselves with following the data-flow of “a single trailing moment of now in the past, ” praying the camera is in the right place at the right time. But that also serves to underscore the televisual nature of the machine: as in Enemy of the State, or, as hinted at by the way Tony shoots the stadium in The Fan, the operators work like live TV directors, choosing the proper angle from various live feeds. (Indeed, all of Tony’s work in the last decade has problematized/satirized television; even in 2001’s Spy Game he can’t resist an ironic Baywatch glimpse…in the middle of China!)

But more importantly, Déjà Vu is upfront about the questionable nature of the whole government-funded enterprise; this is not about clearing your name (as in Spielberg). Saving the woman being watched, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), is not the goal, rather trailing her past will help the agents solve a terrorist bombing with echoes of both 9/11 and Oklahoma City. The projected futility of the investigation’s outcome for Claire makes Carlin’s obsession with her all the more poignant, but like in Vertigo the voyeuristic and necrophiliac aspects of his romantic feelings are foregrounded. “I got the weird feeling I’m being watched, ” reads Claire’s diary after an uncomfortable Jumbotron-surveyed shower, and soon Carlin doubts the quantum physicists’ assurances that Snow White’s link from the present to the past is strictly a one-way affair. More effective is his touching prior assertion to Claire: “Don’t you remember we held hands once?” It is also quite sinister, since this happened during her autopsy.

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