Next is one of those movies that needs to be seen to be believed. I liken it to a twisted version of The Ring, where instead of dying within a week of watching it, you must show it to someone else within a week of watching it, just to make sure that it exists and that it’s not a figment of your imagination. Why do I love Next so much? I think it’s because it almost works as a concept, but its execution is utterly baffling, full of multiplying Nicolas Cages and uncomfortable relationship dynamics, with a muddled message about governmental overreach on top. That’s exactly what allows it to remain such a great watch with friends, 15 years later, and it’s also what keeps me coming back, wishing that the movie was more than it ended up being.
The 2007 film, directed by Lee Tamahori, is the story of Cris Johnson (Cage), a Las Vegas magician with the much more fun stage name “Frank Cadillac.” He explains later, in a line that I think was meant seriously but could just as easily be a joke, that the name is a combination of two things he really likes: Frankenstein and Cadillacs. Our protagonist can see two minutes into his own future, but has a recurring vision of a woman at a diner, noting the time but unable to grasp the date. It must mean something, he supposes, so he visits the diner twice a day to try and find her. At the same time, there’s a missing Russian nuclear bomb, which has been stolen by terrorists with unclear motivations. Both the terrorists and Julianne Moore’s NSA Agent Callie Ferris are focused on finding Cris, with the latter hoping that Cris can help the NSA find the bomb before it explodes and the former seeking to neutralize the threat Cris poses.
Cris’ pursuit of Liz creates the first problem with this movie. I’m not sure what would have made this romantic relationship work, but having Cris stare at Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel) as she walks into the restaurant accompanied by longing strings and a soft piano melody is…not it. As Cris convinces Liz to give him a ride to Flagstaff, stopping along the way at a Havasupai reservation where she teaches, it’s not only the one-sidedness of their relationship that bothers me, it’s the condensed timeline. One sequence perfectly cuts to Cris’ lovesick stare as one of Liz’s students points out that Cris “looked at you like my brother looks at his girlfriend.” The added context that Cris met Liz only a few hours before adds an extra layer of absurdity. (And that’s not even mentioning the age difference.)
After the two spend the night at a hotel, Liz is willing to stick with Cris even after Agent Ferris tells her that he’s a sociopath. Note that this woman has spent about 24 hours with Cris. He must be a master in bed for her to fall in love with this creepy alleged criminal. I like bad boys too, but this relationship was founded on a few conversations about free will vs. destiny and a shared appreciation for rain. The whole love story is so unnecessarily uncomfortable, especially considering that we see that Liz has a stalker ex-boyfriend seconds before Cris makes his move at the diner. Give Liz a break!
Besides the strange relationship dynamics, one of Next’s key tools is Cris’ visions, though they’re portrayed with varying success. It is incredibly funny to see Cris’ car get hit by a moving train in the film’s opening chase, only for the camera to do a 360-degree turn and zoom in on Cris’ car in the distance, moving towards the tracks, the prior accident never happening—or not having happened yet. What’s frustrating is that there are some interestingly crafted sequences, such as Cris pulling a slot machine hammer to hit the jackpot and create a distraction, that use the character’s precognition as a superpower and not a melodramatic plot device. The casino escape sequence in general relies less on “replaying” scenes with camera tricks as it does showing us Cris’ power through his near-misses with security guards. This doesn’t always work—like when he’s literally dodging bullets or barely ducking under a falling car with the gusto of a ground-punch—but there’s dramatic potential. And potential for unintentional humor, surely, as Cris fights Liz’s ex like Peter Parker figuring out his spidey sense, countering every punch with an avoidant swerve.
At its worst, though, this gimmick makes Next’s intense moments even more forgettable. Before going on the run to find Liz, Cris has a conversation with Callie in his garage, where he talks about his experience being studied as a child. It’s heartbreaking, and would have real weight if the movie expanded on it, but it’s all broken when the camera spins around and Cris leaves the scene just before Callie gets there. We’re meant to have sympathy for this man who has spent his entire life being hunted for his abilities, to ponder the ethics of harming one person for the benefit of countless others. Instead, we are shuffled along as if the conversation never even happened, undermining the revelations and ideas just presented. It’s anticlimactic, even when we’ve been given the climax.
This leads us to Next’s ending. After my favorite scene—where Cris multiplies himself to search the perimeter for Liz, who is a hostage now because of course she is—the terrorists are defeated. The bomb is still on the loose, though, and when Cris tries to find it, it’s too late: The bomb explodes and debris flies towards the camera as the world burns.
And then, we’re back in the hotel room, zooming out of Cris’ open eye with Liz draped around him. It’s that morning again, and the entire second half of the movie has been a vision.
I can’t begin to think about the rules of Cris’ precognition, so I only assume that, as the movie suggests, he can see more into the future with Liz because of their psychic bond or whatever. Cris leaves Liz, telling her that he’ll find her if she can wait, and he goes to turn himself in to work with Callie. What makes him assume that he’ll be treated humanely? I guess the goodness of Callie’s heart, though she doesn’t seem to show any of that in the alternate vision. Then the movie simply ends. The bomb is still missing, but at least Cris is going to try to help now! He learned that the government is not so bad after all.
The “lesson” seems utterly out of place in a movie that could have honed in on American fears of terrorism and how far the government will go to stop it. But, in the end, there isn’t much of a difference in Cris’ mindset. He now trusts the government because he had a semi-non-life-threatening experience with them in an alternate timeline, and his takeaway is that the future can change and is not set in stone. Fine, but the government in this timeline doesn’t have any reason to treat Cris with kindness just because he decides to cooperate. We’ve seen that Callie isn’t above strapping Cris to a chair and keeping his eyes open to force him to use his powers. There is an attempt at a real argument about government overreach and the effectiveness of torture, but the ending undermines this argument completely by disregarding what the movie has previously presented to us.
The focus on anti-authoritarianism was a larger part of the movie’s original script, when it had more connection to the story it’s based on: Philip K. Dick’s The Golden Man, about the government persecuting mutants. We also get a lot more information about why Callie knows about Cris—she’s been studying people like him for a while, so her motivation doesn’t come out of nowhere, as it does in the final product. While I’d love to see a closer adaptation of the story one day, this version is still a worthwhile watch, especially if you want to see others react to that ending. A movie that tries and fails to make a point is endlessly interesting in its own right: You don’t only get to see where it went wrong, you can discuss what might’ve made it work. Next fits into this framework as perfectly imperfect. Besides, if this adaptation was more serious, I doubt that there would be a character named “Frank Cadillac,” and I’m grateful for that.
Next is a delightfully misguided movie that should be recognized for its potential as much as its woeful execution. As a fan of many Cage pictures, Next deserves to be in the pantheon alongside The Wicker Man and Knowing. Sure, it’s not the most notable performance; Cris doesn’t have many “Cage Rage” moments, but it’s the combination of the good ideas in the plot and the movie’s inability to expand on any of them that makes this a unique kind of bad movie. It’s just as fun to watch with friends to see their reaction as it is to pick apart exactly why it doesn’t work. Infuriatingly fun.
Catie McCarthy is a geography student, knitter, and film score connoisseur who is still holding out hope for another season of Timeless. She has written for The Dartmouth and The Daily Fandom. Talk to her about Moonfall on Twitter.