Friday, 11 May 2007

NEXT (2007)

Nicholas Cage applies the Ludovico Technique on himself

Blade Runner was the best adaptation of any Philip K Dick story, Scanners the most gory adaptation, Minority Report the most faithful (literal) adaptation, and Total Recall the most surreal and faithful (intellectual) adaptation, while A Scanner Darkly was the most visually stunning and hallucinatory adaptation. All these movies, though, are more or less straightforward (as far as they could be) adaptations of works by an author who played around with issues of multiple (and fakable) realities and identities, of plastic authenticity and grounded inauthenticity. Next is just about the weirdest movie adaptations of any Philip K Dick short story, because it takes the highly surreal and improbable far future alternative-humanity scenario of The Golden Man, where the protagonist of the short story is a feral human mutant who operates on pure animal instinct and a limited power to tell the future, and turns it into a more recognisable superhero movie, where the protagonist is a magician by day and reluctant superhero by night - one who dodges bullets and saves America from a nuclear attack by rouge Russians who have stolen a nuclear warhead.

As you can guess, there's practically nothing from The Golden Man that survives the transition to the movie aside from the vague idea that our hero, played by Nicholas Cage, has roughly the same transhuman powers from the short story. As a radical adaptation, it is clear that Next must be evaluated on its own merits, and how its trio of scriptwriters and the director weave a completely original and credible narrative around the single idea of a man who can tell the future of his own life, 2 minutes ahead.

Here's what I feel the director and scriptwriters have done right:

1. There is a commendable effort at reintroducing classic Philip K Dick obsession with mixing up multiple realities into the film. You'll see this in several sequences where what appears to happen before you is merely a mental picture that Cris (Our hero, incidentally, is a Las Vegas magician. A deliberately bad magician, in a stroke of ironic genius!) conjures up with his power to predict all possible futures of the next 2 minutes of his life. The scriptwriters use this at times for comic effect (imagine dating a woman and trying out all possible come on lines first!), suspense (just when you think he's backed into a corner, or forced to make a deal he cannot refuse!), and even good action and chase scenes (Nicholas Cage dodges bullets and bulkier objects far better than Neo!). It is cheeky, it can get overused, but this is how Philip K Dick wrote his novels and short stories too... Sure, I can imagine audiences getting a little annoyed when the next sequence turns out to be another vision of the future.

2. There are two scenes where Cris utilises the full extent of his powers that are just visually stunning and somewhat creative - and clearly is a credit to Lee Tamahori's experience as a Bond director and the scriptwriters' knowledge of pulp sci-fi conventions.

Here's what I feel the director and scriptwriters could have been better:

1. For some reason, the switch from a classic Philip K Dick narrative to a Hollywoodised superhero story has turned the precog animal-like feral protagonist to a world-saving superhero. For all intents and purposes, Nicholas Cage really plays the Kwisatz Haderach in this movie, the Dune messiah who has the absolute powers of prescience, to predict all possible futures and ultimately select his course of action. There's a reason why Frank Herbert and other sci-fi writers who create near omnipotent characters never quite succeed in making these characters feel real, or have them as the sole main protagonists - omnipotence is boring. Where's the sense of suspense that every film or story needs if you invent a character that cannot lose?

2. At times, the visual representation of the hero's powers, like Matrix-style bullet dodging or splitting up into multiple selves, ends up looking dated and cheesey, thanks to Lee Tamahori's rather literal visual style, honed from his experiences from Die Another Day and XXX: the next level. This may not be fatal, but in conjunction with Nicholas Cage's offbeat charm, the at times quirky and over-cute narrative style of this movie, this could end up annoying some audiences. As someone who grew up with cheesey pulp sci-fi, though, I had fewer objections to this.

Next may be the most inaccessible of all Philip K Dick movie adaptations because of its style of adaptation, but if you're a hardcore sci-fi fan who appreciates honest efforts in storytelling and forgives over-enthusiastic, overreaching efforts, you'll do fine with this one.

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2007

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