Who should get the credit for a tight, intelligent gem like Déjà Vu?
We could start with the writers, Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio. Marsilii’s only other credits are some TV cartoon episode work for Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss in the 1990s. Rossio has more of a history, from Disney’s Aladdin through The Road to El Dorado and Shrek, to the Antonio Banderas Zorro pictures and all three (present and forthcoming) Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That’s a decent box-office record, but not one that would lead you to expect a complex, brain-teasing story that makes you work seriously (and happily) to sort things out as you leave the theater.
Then there’s director Tony Scott. Laboring in the shadow of big brother Ridley for decades, his output has been spotty—bonanzas like Top Gun, middling stuff like Days of Thunder and Man on Fire, and unwatchable dreck like Domino. Scott’s penchant here, as in nearly all his movies, is to make everything—even a bomb going off on a ferry in the middle of the Mississippi River—look like an SUV commercial. But he responds to the tension in the script, and his camerawork with cinematographer Paul Cameron—hand-held, wavering, uncomfortably close to faces and hands—enhances the sense that we’re lost amid the pieces of an enormous, perplexing jigsaw puzzle.
The puzzle begins on a sunny New Orleans day as a throng of tourists, families and sailors on leave crowd aboard a gleaming ferry boat. Minutes later, on the boat’s car deck, a bomb goes off, setting off a second, larger explosion of the fuel tank and sending over 500 people to a fiery, watery grave.
As the investigation of the catastrophe ramps up, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is drawn aside to see about a female victim whose body has turned up downstream of the blast. She has burns and explosive residue consistent with the evidence found at the scene, but there are some facts that don’t fit into the big picture. For one thing, she’s missing three fingers that seem to have been sheared off neatly, as with a blow from an axe or cleaver. For another, her body washed up over an hour before the explosion.
Carlin’s hunch, shared with FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) is that solving the terrorist bombing will hinge on figuring out what happened to this woman. In turn, Pryzwarra asks Carlin to sit in on an innovative form of surveillance that some computer analysts have come up with. Their leader (Adam Goldberg) explains it to Carlin: By coordinating the data from a bank of spy satellites, they are able to reconstruct events in the life of the dead woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), from four-and-one-half days ago. But there are two snags in the process: They have to wait 100 hours for the data to be processed, and they can only see something once, as it “happens;” no rewinding or fast-forwards.
As Carlin, Pryzwarra and the computer geeks sit before their big screen watching Claire’s last days unfold, with their “camera” moving smoothly from room to room in her house, even into the bathtub as she showers, something seems fishy to Carlin (as, indeed, it does to us in the audience). This can’t just be old, reshuffled satellite downloads; there’s got to be more to it than that. It seems almost like … well, like time travel.
You’ll have to discover the rest of Déjà Vu’s tantalizing plot for yourself. It’s a sort of science-fiction riff on the old film-noir classic Laura, where detective Dana Andrews finds himself falling in love with the portrait of a woman (Gene Tierney) whose murder he’s investigating, probing her life through the flashback reminiscences of her associates. Only in Déjà Vu, the flashbacks aren’t just a movie convention, they’re embedded in the story, with the detective watching them happen rather than hearing them second-hand.
The script has a loose end or two—always a chance you take with time-paradox tales—but it’s a quantum leap (pun intended) over the likes of Timecop and Bill & Ted. Scott, Marsilii and Rossio have crafted one of the most intelligent science-fiction movies since the genre became redefined down into simple space opera.