A wrinkle in time gives texture and cinematic power to Tony Scott’s exquisitely rendered “Deja Vu.” The deliberate explosion of a New Orleans ferry carrying hundreds of U.S. sailors triggers what at first looks like the ultimate “CSI” episode care of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But time-bending and tense-switching dimensions send “Deja Vu” to the level of an existential sci-fi thriller sure to elicit post-screening discussions and a fine holiday take.
Third match of Scott and star Denzel Washington (“Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire”) is the least overtly dramatic but the most resonant, with the duo giving solidity to a concept that would fly apart in less sure hands. Scott understands filmmaking as well as any Hollywood helmer and easily connects with Washington, with both aspects wedded here to rewarding ends.
Opening nine minutes comprise a wordless montage of sailors and their families enjoying Mardi Gras on a New Orleans river ferry, followed by an enormous bomb blast that sends bodies and cars into the river. Even by Bruckheimer standards, this is one mother of a fireball, realistically staged.
ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington), a vet of the Oklahoma City attack, meticulously investigates the massive crime scene, which involves 543 victims. He links the bomber to a woman named Claire (Paula Patton), whose body was found some distance from the bombing before the attack itself.
Figuring that Claire had some connection to the bomber, Carlin examines her home and is stunned to hear himself on her answering machine.
He’s in for a bigger surprise from FBI agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), working under straight-laced lead investigator Jack McCready (Bruce Greenwood). Spotting Carlin’s skills, Pryzwarra introduces him to a team of techies who have apparently developed software that can digitally re-create images from four days earlier. With their nifty tools and visuals, scientists Denny (Adam Goldberg), Gunnars (Elden Henson) and Shanti (Erika Alexander) are able to scan Claire at home prior to the tragedy.
Sequences in the so-called “time-window” lab suggest the scope of surveillance on private lives, as well as serving up a dazzling metaphysical lightshow in which Carlin becomes the aud’s surrogate, pondering the reality of what he’s seeing. The lab’s work pushes the story into the realm of string theory, wormholes, Einstein and the “folding” of time. What Carlin sees is in fact the recent past “bridged” to the present.
In a visually inventive, mind-twisting chase, Carlin tracks the bomber, ID’d as Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel), simultaneously in the present and four days prior by using a “time-window” portable viewfinder device.
Cinema’s natural felicities for time and action have seldom felt as beautifully dovetailed. And even when the plot in Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio’s script begins to push plausibility, it stays grounded in Washington’s emotional drive as Carlin to rescue Claire from a death that seems to be her destiny.
Kilmer and Greenwood are in fairly perfunctory “CSI”-like roles, but Patton is allowed a fascinating range as a single woman first viewed from a distance of time and space and, later, close up. Caviezel is pure right-wing malevolence in a role that counters his usually beatific countenance.
Pic is a technical marvel at the highest level, with Scott regulars (including lenser Paul Cameron, editor Chris Lebenzon and production designer Chris Seagers) operating at full, imaginative throttle. Tech heads will buzz about lab sequences for weeks afterward. Big Easy locales, filmed post-Katrina, are lavishly used.