Review: Frequency (dir. Gregory Hoblit, 2000)

Review: Frequency (dir. Gregory Hoblit, 2000) April 28, 2000

frequency“The future is listening,” say the ads, but Frequency — an imaginative but ultimately convoluted bit of hokum — is very definitely set in the past. The film takes place in two time periods simultaneously, the more recent of which is October 1999. That may be just a few months ago, but the story already feels dated, thanks to an unintentionally funny subplot concerning the riches that can be had simply by investing in the internet on the stock market. That’ll teach them to postpone a film’s release.

Bad timing aside, the film certainly has a degree of originality in its favour. In October 1969, a Brooklyn firefighter named Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) plays with his ham radio and, to his astonishment, makes contact with his son John (The Thin Red Line‘s Jim Caviezel), a cop who is playing with the same ham radio exactly 30 years in the future. They apparently owe this odd encounter to a couple of solar flares, and the resulting aurora borealis, in each of their eras.

One can’t help wondering what Krzysztof Kiewslowski or another master of metaphysical storytelling would have done with this premise. But this is a Hollywood movie, and that means we can’t spend any time dawdling on deep existential mysteries. Instead, there must be action, clearly defined crises to resolve, frantic attempts to save people’s lives, and ideally some sort of mystery involving a serial killer. And along the way, John must find personal healing.

It turns out Frank has hooked up with his son the day before he was fated to die in the line of duty. But John, still suffering the trauma of growing up without a dad, gives Frank a crucial piece of information that ends up saving Frank’s life, at least temporarily. This sequence drags on a bit, as the audience is treated to an extended montage of flashbacks and flashforwards: 30 years of altered history are compressed into a minute or two and set to a swollen score, courtesy of composer Michael Kamen.

Of course, as anyone who has seen the Back to the Future movies could tell you, meddling with the past is bound to complicate things, and although you don’t need a degree in chaos theory to follow the rest of the story, it wouldn’t hurt. Suffice it to say that the script, by newcomer Tobias Emmerich (brother of Truman Show co-star Noah, who plays a friend of John’s), hinges on wilder implausibilities than anything Marty McFly ever witnessed. Every time Frank changes the past, things change in John’s world, but John himself always seems to end up in the exact same place, whether he is sitting in a bar with friends or struggling on the floor with an armed murderer. This stretches credibility to the breaking point.

Not that that has to be a problem. Griping about the many paradoxes in a film like this can be one of the main reasons for seeing it, if you’re a time-travel buff. It’s also fun to see Dennis Quaid, looking a bit grizzled with age, return to the sort of what-if science-fiction film that defined his career in the mid-1980s (think Dreamscape or Innerspace).

But as the film progresses, father and son become increasingly preoccupied with finding the aforementioned killer, and these bits of the story feel like warmed-over TV fare. (The presence of Homicide‘s Andre Braugher as yet another cop doesn’t help.) Director Gregory Hoblit, who worked on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue before turning to big-screen police stories like Fallen, handles this material competently enough. But I would have been a lot happier if, in the spirit of our times, the film had dropped all those tired old plot mechanics and simply allowed the guys to bond.

2.5 stars (out of 5)

— A version of this review was first published in the Vancouver Courier.

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