In keeping with traditional American ambivalence toward unfamiliar technology, from the iron plow to the steam engine, when the computer first appeared in science-fiction and science-fiction film (and perhaps even in real life) it tended to threaten human beings, as if it were some kind of some kind of thinking machine. In such movies as Colossus: TheForbin Project, Demon Seed, and probably most famously 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer represented an intelligent mechanical malevolence intent on controlling mankind. By now, of course, most of us have come to realize that among its other functions and possibilities, it is not so much a thinking machine as a knowing machine, a mechanism that enables the rapid storage and retrieval of information, a sort of super library available to all.
Despite the promise of its trailers, the new movie Déjà Vu, which employs computers, satellites, and space-age imaging, suggests that the familiar phenomenon of its title not only occurs in the psyche, but can also result from the operation of an immensely sophisticated machine. Although the picture generally follows the familiar patterns of the detective story, it wanders off into the physics and technology of time travel as both an explanation of the experience of déjà vu and the means to solve a puzzle and capture a criminal, so that its computers are also remembering machines.
The movie begins with a colorful montage in medium slow motion of hundreds of sailors embarking on a ferry from their ship to New Orleans for shore leave during Mardi Gras. The silent images of gleeful service men and women crowding the railings, laughing, talking, meeting happy families, and so on establish the situation for a somehow expected but still shocking catastrophe, a huge explosion that virtually destroys the vessel and takes hundreds of lives.
An ATF agent named Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) almost immediately concludes that the explosion was an act of terrorism, which draws the full attention of a battery of law enforcement personnel, including the FBI and a group of technological wizards. When Carlin discovers a mysterious connection between the corpse of a murdered woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), and the explosion, the techies move into high gear, following up his analysis with their high powered machinery. Citing some extremely abstruse physics, they tell him that the convergence of four satellites over the area allows them to see complete images of the ferry recorded four days earlier, which may help to discover evidence of the terrorist's plot.
As the images rush rapidly across the screen in a montage that somehow mirrors the opening sequence, Carlin senses something fishy about the process, which the scientists reluctantly explain folds the space-time continuum, projecting their surveillance and even some trace of their presence into the past. The investigator realizes that their apparatus can help him solve the mystery and prevent hundreds of deaths, including Claire's murder.
Although the central premise turns the movie from a fascinating and highly relevant exhibit of contemporary surveillance and investigative techniques into a generally preposterous science-fiction flick, the careful depiction of process and mechanism, along with the lectures on post-Einsteinian physics, allows for at least a modicum of plausibility. The script cleverly shows how the detective work and the solution to the mysteries revolve around the familiar paradoxes of time travel, the notion of transforming the present through some intrusion into the structure of the past. In a sense the movie reminds us of Thoreau's dictum that one cannot kill time without injuring eternity.
Denzel Washington, who has played so many cinematic versions of the detective that he must by now be due for a fat pension, performs with his customary offhand confidence. He forces the audience into a special kind of identification as he tries to understand the theoretical physics behind the apparatus that studies the past, ultimately rearranges the fabric of time, and redesigns the fate that initially seems permanent and implacable. His performance and the polished direction of Tony Scott manage to make the impossible somewhat plausible, no mean achievement even for an odd amalgam of science-fiction and police procedural.
Déjà Vu (PG-13), directed by Tony Scott, is now playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.