Review by Jason Morrison
There's nothing better than a good time travel movie. Look at Back to the Future. Go back in time, meet your parents, prevent their marriage, start disappearing, reunite parents, back in time for breakfast.
In Frequency, John Sullivan (James Caviezel) explores similar ground without leaving the comforts of his own home (and time). One dark and aurora borealis-filled night he pulls out his dad's old CB radio and finds himself talking to his father. His father, though, died fighting a warehouse fire 30 years ago. As the scientist on television drones in the background, we apparently don't know everything about aurora borealis.
Once John figures out the Frank (Dennis Quaid) he's talking to is his dad in the past, he realizes he can change the past-by warning his dad to try the other exit in the fire. Frank doesn't believe it, but he's intrigued by John's prediction of the first 1969 Mets World Series game. He enters the burning warehouse, finds the girl trapped on the top floor, and goes with his son's recommendation.
As soon as he does John suddenly has new memories. His dad didn't die in the fire, but passed away ten years ago from lung cancer. He can remember both histories, even though for everyone else Frank never died in that fire.
But as we all know, changing one thing in the past is bound to change another. Because Frank didn't die, his wife (and John's mom) Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) was never called away from her job at the hospital. Because she showed up that day, she became a target of a mass murderer who specialized in nurses.
Frank is distraught but John, a cop who just happens to be working on the case, convinces his dad to follow each of the victims on the nights they were murdered. Frank saves one, loses another, but is unable to catch the murderer-until the murderer catches him.
It only gets more complicated from there. The plot is actually one of Frequency's strongest points. The strange time-travel contact happens just as John is at a low. His girlfriend has left him and the anniversary of his father's death has him looking at his friend Gordo Hersch (Noah Emmerich) and his son as a standard he's never lived up to. The story changes quickly from Field of Dreams father-son magical realism to detective drama with some great fire fighting and baseball thrown in.
Though the film's look and feel never falter, the pace changes quickly, sucking you right into the pursuit of the murderer. And though and time travel story generates a thousand paradoxes (when a cop breaks the CB in the past, John's future CB suddenly breaks-shouldn't it have always been broken, and therefore he could have never talked to his dad, and therefore his dad should be dead, not his mom, and therefore the CB should never have been broken…?) they are unobtrusive and generally believable.
But where this film falls short is where it starts to emulate time travel trash like TimeCop. I know it must be really tempting to use computer generated imaging these days-everyone's doing it, it's so nifty, etc.-but why make the CB glow in the dark and magically morph back together? Couldn't we just have the characters look away, and then when they come back it's fixed? It certainly wouldn't look so cheesy. And when one character looses his hand in the past, his future self's hand withers and bubbles away like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. That doesn't even make sense-it's not like he lost it in degrees in the past. Why not just direct the camera off his hands, and then come back to see nothing?
This is actually illustrative of a general trend. It seems more and more movies rely on CGI special effects instead of good directing. Even George Lucas. The Death Star trench scene in Star Wars was low tech, but it was also beautiful cinematography. The comparable pod race scene in Phantom Menace was fast and technically amazing, but visual vanilla pudding. Movies like The Haunting seem to assume that creepy moving sculpture is all you need to make a movie scary. With so many possibilities, why do so many films use CGI to fall flat?
Frequency also has a bad happy-ending/cheesy-whimsical-science-magic tendency. The aurora is shown a couple thousand times, just to remind us that yes, he's still going to talk to his dad in the past, and yes, we're still supposed to believe in it. Good touches, like John telling past-Gordo to remember the word "Yahoo" (and future Gordo's subsequent wealth) are stuffed between goofiness (like a scientist relating the aurora to string theory on TV) and even more pictures of the aurora.
But ultimately (and despite the rapid spray cheese ending) the film works because it so well taps into the characters' father-son relationship. I've read reviews critical of this theme, likening it to every thing from supporting the patriarchy to shooting emotional fish in a barrel, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a film about a guy who misses his dad.
Critics have also been more or less skeptical about the baseball theme and the lack of racism between John and Frank and Satch DeLeon (André Braugher), a close family friend and one of John's role models. For the former, many fathers and sons have something, like baseball, that is a constant excuse to spend time together-whether it's baseball, or camping, or even Star Trek. And for the latter, I'm willing to believe that a white middle-class firefighter would be able to be friends with a black middle-class police officer in New York in 1969.
Most of the performances are good, with Quaid particularly striking when he's over his head, a firefighter trying to do police work. Caviezel takes a while to establish his character but in the end keeps him steady despite the swirling histories.
Frequency falls short of its potential but has enough momentum to carry it through. If only they would have cut out some of the whimsy and added some really unpredictable plot twists. If my radio could go back in time only a few years, I think I'd try to tell the director that. But then I would have never seen the flawed version, so I'd have never known what to tell the director, so he would have made the flawed version, so…
(Out of five)