Time travel is a filmmaker’s best friend. This is indisputably the case for two major reasons:
- Time travel allows characters to literally go back and attempt to correct their mistakes, and…
- Time travel makes no sense, so writers and directors can dress it up however they want.
Ever since the days of H.G Wells, time travel has often been given an air of scientific authority, which makes it feel like it could be real. Of course, many of us still remember that it’s total nonsense. This underlying truth of time travel gives any piece of fiction the freedom to make up the rules as they go along.
This 2006 thriller by the late, great Tony Scott treats time travel like just another tool in a veteran crime fighter’s toolbox. Here’s why you need to see Déjà Vu now that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime.
In this tense sci-fi movie, starring Denzel Washington, sci-fi elements are rarely approached with any sort of wonder or amazement. Déjà Vu focuses on ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) as he endeavors to prevent an explosion in New Orleans at any cost. And if doing so means Denzel must crawl into a little time-machine box with the words “Revive Me” on his chest, then that’s what he’s going to do.
The feeling of wanting to start over reverberates throughout Deja Vu, as a sign promising that “[Hurricane] Katrina only made us stronger!” belies a city that feels impossibly empty. When Fat Tuesday explosions kill over 500 people, most of them Navy officers on leave, it thrusts the city into mourning all over again.
Enter Washington’s Carlin, a no-nonsense type more interested in digging around under bridges than figuring out the chain of command at a complex crime scene. Carlin catches the attention of the FBI’s Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who offers to let him in on a special, newly formed government unit investigating the attack.
The unit is decidedly high-tech, with Carlin saying that he doesn’t even know the right questions to ask about their work at first. But he soon figures it out: this unit has access to a technology called “Snow White,” which offers truly incredible surveillance footage. Pryzwarra tries to tell him that it involves thermal cameras and satellites, but Carlin isn’t buying it. The footage is too good, too extensive. How can they be looking inside people’s homes and seeing every detail?
Finally, Pryzwarra and team leader Dr. Alexander Denny (Adam Goldberg) come clean: it’s time travel. Sort of. Snow White can see into a very specific window of the past—four days, six hours, three minutes, forty-five seconds, and fourteen point five nanoseconds, to be precise. No more, no less.
They can also interact with that past, but only in very small ways that they’re not confident will change anything. They’re still not sure of all the rules, in other words, seeing as how this wormhole was invented by mistake.
Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene consulted on Déjà Vu, later telling NBC that “it was a kick” to hang out with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott, and the writers while discussing the finer points of general relativity. One person in the room was decidedly less happy: co-writer Terry Rossio, who’d also co-written the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
On his website Wordplay, Rossio details his problems with Déjà Vu, starting with Scott, who he calls “completely the wrong choice” for the movie in that the director had no real interest in science fiction. “My hope was we had a screenplay that could be the next Sixth Sense. Tony wanted to make just another also-ran surveillance film,” he says, presumably dismissing Scott’s excellent previous movie Enemy of the State as “also-ran.”
There are certain similarities between Enemy of State and Déjà Vu, which also contradict one another in terms of their narratives. In the former, a modern classic starring Will Smith, government surveillance is used to cover up a murder. But in the latter, it’s used to solve murders. The privacy of those watched by Snow White is never discussed, presumably because they are all victims or bad guys.
If Rossio wanted Déjà Vu to show the philosophical and emotional ramifications of time travel, he was likely disappointed with what Scott did with the material. Here, the focus is more on using the time-travel tech for car-chase scenes, with Carlin attempting to track the murderous bomber (Jim Caviezel, just two years after Passion of the Christ) through goggles that allow him to use Snow White technology on the go.
While lacking the depth of Enemy of the State, Déjà Vu is fun in its own right. It wants to give the city of New Orleans a win. As the first movie to film in the city post-Katrina, Scott described the production as “pretty hardcore, emotionally” in an interview. But the disaster in other ways made the shoot easier, given that a large percentage of the population had left the city.
And on top of that, “people were really impressed that we would come in and were grateful, so they helped us more,” Scott said. And while the action in Déjà Vu might not make a whole lot of sense, it moves with such speed and confidence that one can imagine how enjoyable it was to shoot — and can see firsthand how easy it is to get swept up in.
Deja Vu is now streaming on Amazon Prime.