Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Frequency

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Frequency

7/10

USA 2000
director – Gregory Hoblit
script – Toby Emmerich
cinematographer – Alar Kivilo
stars – Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel
118 minutes

Frequency is really more a mechanism than an actual film, but it’s such a wonderfully effective little machine I don’t think anybody will mind very much.

The plot could easily have become tortuously over-complicated, and it’s difficult to summarise while at the same time doing justice to its multiple, intertwined ingenuities. But here goes. Jim Caviezel plays New York cop John Sullivan – it’s October 1999 and unusually strong solar flares produce spectacular northern lights over Manhattan. The northern lights are the strongest for exactly 30 years – since the week John’s father Frank (Quaid), a fireman, was killed on the job while battling a warehouse inferno. John stumbles across his father’s old ham radio set stuck away under the stairs, and finds that “the mother of all sunspots” is enabling him to speak with his father, back in 1969. John’s warnings lead Frank to avoid death in the warehouse fire, which in turn leads to a rippling out of changes down over the years and back to the present.

The results, while ingenious and never less than entertaining, are clearly a long way from being 100% original. The basic set-up of a kid attempting to speak with a deceased relative using ham radio, not to mention the opening cosmic shots of the planet accompanied by radio stations and static, are straight from the prologue to Contact. Once Caviezel accesses and interfaces with past events, we’re firmly into Back To The Future territory, and then the introduction of a serial killer into the plot carries with it echoes of the 1979 cult favourite Time After Time, which had a time-travelling H G Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack The Ripper (David Warner) doing battle in contemporary Washington – films like Frequency, of course, remind us that we have actually invented time machines already, and we call them the movie camera and projector.

Some reviewers of this film have also mentioned its similarity to certain episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I think that parallel only goes so far – that TV series usually delivered unpleasantly ironic surprises to its protagonists, while Frequency represents more of a constant (if jagged) movement towards an inevitable, uncomplicated happy ending. It’s a classic example of high concept Hollywood – a nifty idea, very well executed.

Incidentally, I can’t believe I’ve just typed the words “very well executed” while reviewing a film directed by the man who unleashed the dreadful Fallen on the world back in 1998. You wouldn’t have thought it was possible to make a dull film featuring both Donald Sutherland and John Goodman, but Gregory Hoblit managed it and then some. A turgid potboiler of demonic possession starring a particularly leaden Denzel Washington, Hoblit buried whatever interest lay dormant in the script under a welter of over-elaborate visuals – slow motion, weird filters, bizarre angles, etc. There was only one interesting scene in the whole enterprise : the demon in question passed from one host to the next by simple touch, and was thus able to chase his one of his intended victims down a busy shopping street without any single one of the hosts involved breaking out of a medium-paced walk.

Frequency, I’m pleased to say, extends that kind of cleverness over the course of a full-length feature, and if Hoblit hasn’t quite managed to settle his visual style down to an acceptable degree – there is still an inordinate amount of slow-motion, with endless pivotal items falling gradually to the floor – at least here it works to the ultimate benefit of the material. One particular shot, a pull-back from New York to the whole planet Earth at night, the Aurora Borealis flaring gracefully over the pole, suggests that Hoblit may even have the makings of a real visual stylist, not just a purveyor of stylish visuals.

I’d guess that Hoblit – who made his name withLA Law and NYPD Blue, then went on to considerable box office and critical acclaim with his debut feature Primal Fear – is more than usually reliant on being provided with a decent script. That’s certainly what’s on offer here, Toby Emmerich skilfully dovetailing the twin narratives towards a satisfying convergence. Hoblit and Emmerich casually pull off the tricky feat of switching between the two time periods, while also crafting a thriller blending murder mystery and science-fiction elements. Each element of the plot, and each element of the expanding past/present relationship, is established before we extend just that little bit further on – so that when the big dramatic showdown scene at the end produces the film’s only real special effect, it feels entirely natural and appropriate, given what’s gone before. The other neat element of the script is to do with memory – as Caviezel interferes with the past he doesn’t only change the present, he also provides himself with a whole new set of memories, equal but distinct from the ones he’s been used to his whole life. The visual version of this is Hoblit’s frequent use of fast-cut montages, in which individual features blur and become ambiguous – the film ends with one such sequence of montaged memory, agreeably rough-edged, wobbly, subject to further change.

But these technical feats aren’t enough for Hoblit and Emmerich – they feel the need to strive for a greater resonance. To this end, Frequency goes overboard in its corny dramatisation of the myth of the American Dad. As played by Quaid, Frank Sullivan is an ordinary joe who’s also a hero – in his firefighting job, and also in his domestic role. We see him through Caviezel’s eyes, and he becomes idealised as an impossibly virtuous figure, a role model so daunting that his son diverts into an alternative profession. As in so many American films, Dad-worship is tied inextricably in with baseball, and Frequency relies heavily on the sport – for plot development, iconography, and character development. This all-American stuff is kept in reasonable check – until the final moments, in which a cloyingly sentimental Garth Brooks song swells up out of the soundtrack, threatening to undo much of the film’s hard-earned charm and efficiency.

It’s at this late stage that Frequency‘s real paradox becomes apparent. Though ostensibly a hymn to the possibilities of change, its message is actually very conservative, very family values. Caviezel’s meddling is an attempt to avert undesirable change, and replace an undesirable past and present with an ongoing version of his childhood’s ideal status quo – the whole thing can be read as John Sullivan’s dream of wish-fulfilment. But I, for one, was willing to forgive the movie its flaws, to a large extent because of the big twist that enables the Garth Brooks moment to take place. I wouldn’t dream of telling what that twist is – all I’ll say is that it was entirely unexpected, but also, in retrospect, the only possible ending this film could ever have had.

by Neil Young