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New Frequency

Filmmakers invent a sci-fi subgenre with this unique twist on time-travel flicks

Go get a few grains of salt to accompany these observations of tenable consistency: The movie industry is run by big kids; nifty sci-fi trickery may distract an audience from emotional shoals; cops and criminals are divided by a fine line; nostalgia and evil are cheaper by the pound; good dads are worth their weight in baseballs; and Dennis Quaid is one of our finest American film actors.

Are these appraisals accurate? To find out, you could see Frequency, the new heartstring-tuggin' thriller from the production team who hawked up Primal Fear. Or you could stay home and hazard a guess that all of these generalizations are pretty much true, especially in director Gregory Hoblit's new movie. Designed for broadest possible appeal -- and therefore as nourishing as a box of Cracker Jack -- Frequency marks the screenwriting debut of Toby Emmerich, whose delightful flair for the improbable is counterbalanced by an unfortunate lust for the intolerable. Here we have a buoyant premise remaining afloat -- just -- despite countless melodramatic attempts to sink it. This sabotage from within makes for a rather choppy ride, fraught with sweet pleasures and trite perils, and vice versa.

The toy surprise inside this box is a chunky ham radio, a quaint antiquity in October 1999 but a useful tool exactly 30 years earlier, the last time aurora borealis spectacularly lit up the night sky over Queens. Back in the Autumn of Love, squeaky-clean firefighter Frank Sullivan (Quaid) romanced his wife, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), with Elvis impersonations in the kitchen, and delighted his even squeakier son Johnny (Daniel Henson) with nightly bedside croonings of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Frank's passion for the Amazing Mets suffuses his whole world, but he's also an electrical tinkerer, thus his fiddling with the ham.

Answer man: André Braugher's character (right) holds the movie, and Dennis Quaid's resurrected firefighter, together.
Takashi Seida
Answer man: André Braugher's character (right) holds the movie, and Dennis Quaid's resurrected firefighter, together.

Cut to 1999, and son John (James Caviezel) is not particularly enjoying his mid-thirties. He's a lonely cop, pacing the interior of his parents' house, where his father once cheered and sang. His childhood pal Gordo (Noah Emmerich) stops by with his son, Gordie (Michael Cera), to watch -- natch -- baseball, and the ham gets hauled out, its tubes lit up. Two days before the anniversary of his father's death in a burning seed company, John starts communicating with a strangely familiar voice over the radio. The man on the other end claims to be a firefighter, anxiously awaiting the World Series of 1969. To jog our memories, we get Dick Cavett on television, listening intently as professor Brian Greene hawks his theory of multiverses. The brilliant author is utilized here to explain what every sci-fi fan already knows: that there exist worlds parallel to this one, where slight variations can trigger profound shifts in reality.

Swiftly we enter the best part of the movie, the second act, in which we are relieved of the schmaltz of the setup and haven't yet descended into the preposterous goofiness of the climax. Like in some wonderful exhumed episode of The Twilight Zone, tension builds between Caviezel and Quaid, as the forlorn son and his dead father sort out the marvel of their communication. Things really don't get jumping until the second impressive fire sequence, wherein John's advice changes his father's fate. The conversations between father and son through the mists of time are beautifully acted and directed, made all the more enjoyable by the tiny tricks the two employ to prove their existence to one another.

But this is Hollywood, so we can't just sit around being poofy for two hours. Once it is established that the connection is real, and John's "predictions" have an immediate effect on the present, via the past, we have to let a little evil into the works to spoil everyone's life. Cue the elusive Nightingale Killer. The villain chicken-hawks young nurses and hasn't been caught, but now it's up to Frank and John, separated by three decades, to track him down. Their motivation is wrenching and personal and involves Julia.

Time-travel movies are almost always delicious, be they brilliant (Somewhere in Time, La Jetée/12 Monkeys) or charming (Time After Time) or flat-out awful (want a list?), simply because the very notion of crossing fixed temporal borders thrills the mind. What's nice about Frequency is that it cleverly establishes a subgenre, in which the characters do not travel but seek to realign themselves through time, inspired in part by the work of Stephen Hawking. This distinction is brought into focus by Frank's friend, and John's associate, Satch DeLeon (André Braugher), a wise, compassionate cop whose memories are transformed as he rides the decades. Braugher does much to hold this show together, because, without him, the reality gets muddled.

Hoblit, whose feature credits also include Fallen, knows how to hook an audience and play with their expectations, and he puts his skills to wonderful use throughout the second act. One only wishes he could have another go at the rest of the movie, however, as the surfeit of baseball grows tiresome, and the chase sequences become ridiculous. It's easy to appreciate the film's commentary upon several evolutions over the years, from smoking to investing, but a crucial element seems to be missing, namely: Once fathers and sons have exhausted the topics of baseball and serial killers, do they have anything substantive to discuss?

 
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