Deja Vu Denzel Washington

In this feature our writers defend films they feel have not received their due.

I couldn’t help but feel a little jaded when, earlier this year, rave reviews started rolling in for Duncan Jones’ Source Code, his time-traveling follow-up to his directorial debut Moon. Critics praised the film’s ability to find the humanistic qualities amongst a smart sci-fi premise, while also flattering the lead performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga. Source Code certainly isn’t a bad film, but all the hype left me a little bitter because, only five years earlier, Tony Scott created what should be viewed as one of the definitive, revelatory modern sci-fi films; yet it was lambasted by critics and the general public upon release.

In Déjà Vu, Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, an ATF agent assigned to help track down a terrorist who’s blown up a ferry filled with American sailors from the USS Nimitz and their families. What starts out as a basic crime procedural quickly turns into a complex and thrilling sci-fi narrative. As Carlin gathers more and more clues to the crime, including a body (Paula Patton’s Claire) that was dumped in the river well before the ferry exploded, he’s invited to be part of a secret detective unit that has the ability to stream the past, not unlike a YouTube video. As with any sci-fi film, the science can get a little muddled at times, but Scott and screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio do a good job of laying everything out. Essentially, the team is able to look into the past exactly four days before present time. They can watch events unfold in real time, but can never rewind or re-watch a moment; they create a wormhole that allows them to experience and investigate the days up to the ferry explosion in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the terrorist. Carlin, being the rogue cop that Washington usually plays, has ambitious ideas for the machine, which may allow him to travel into the streamed timeline and prevent the attack from ever happening, saving Claire in the process.

At the heart of this time travel story is an intensely meaningful essay on the human ability to deal with grief, death and mass tragedy. Déjà Vu was the first major film to shoot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and some shady politics left a whole mass of people in a state of disillusionment. Carlin’s motivation to stop a tragedy before it happens is more than just a cop doing his job; it’s the physical manifestation of denial as part of the grieving process. When Katrina rocked New Orleans and government intervention was nowhere to be found, so many wondered what could have been to done prevent such destructive flooding. To go back and urge the government to repair the dams that were notably faulty was the combined wish of a nation, and this sense of the Jungian collective unconscious is what Scott uses to add emotional and political depth to his film.

More than that though, Déjà Vu is filled with some thrilling set pieces. One of the most memorable sequences involves Carlin using a helmet that allows him to view the past stream while away from the main machine present at the original crime scene. The chase takes place in a dual timeline, where through the one eye of the helmet, Carlin is following the terrorist from the night before the bombing and through the other he’s navigating the busy daytime streets of the present. It’s a mind-melding moment that never sacrifices its intelligence while consistently ramping up the tension and directorial innovation. As always, Washington plays Carlin with a pitch-perfect intensity throughout, his dedication to the role and the time travel premise elevating the film beyond that of your average sci-fi blockbuster.

Déjà Vu is that rare film that brims with summer popcorn flair but has the emotional and intellectual depth to make it so much more than an exercise in genre. It’s a poignant critique of the futility of bureaucracy, while also suggesting that, when governments fail, humanity can find solace in faith, love and the kindness of other people. When Claire’s father gives Carlin pictures of his murdered daughter, he says, “I know how these things work. I need her to matter to you,” an echo of the wishes and sentiments of an entire population in post-Katrina America.

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