‘Next’: Writer Blocked, By Kurt Loder

Sci-fi author Philip K. Dick gets elbowed out of his own story in Nic Cage action flick; also: 'Zoo.'

The novels and stories of the late Philip K. Dick have already provided the basis for eight movies, some of them very good (“Blade Runner,” “Minority Report”), some so-so at best (“Imposter,” “Paycheck”), and at least one of them godawful (“Screamers”). “Next,” the latest such undertaking, is definitely so-so at best; but it also falls into a new category of PKD adaptations — if “adaptation” is the word. For this curious project, writer and producer Gary Goldman (who’d previously worked on “Minority Report” and “Total Recall,” another PKD-based movie) acquired the rights to a 1954 Dick short story called “The Golden Man.” Then he threw away the story, replaced it with an unrelated narrative of his own devising, changed the title, and shopped the resulting property to Saturn Films, a production company run by Nicolas Cage. Cage’s reaction to Goldman’s PKD-free script is quoted in the movie’s press notes: “I admire Philip K. Dick; he’s edgy and uncompromising, and his unique voice in writing translates successfully to films.”

This is a bizarre thing to say about a story that has nothing to do with Dick’s “unique voice,” or with his writing in any way. “The Golden Man” is set in a near-future world in which the government is trying to stamp out pockets of mutant beings who’ve been born to human mothers. One of these creatures, 18-year-old Cris Johnson, secretly raised on a secluded family farm, has the mutant ability to see 30 minutes into the future, and to pre-adjust his actions in relation to events that are about to happen. He falls into the hands of a government “deviant” squad, but with his ability to foresee their every attempt to hold him, he soon escapes and disappears into the night. He leaves behind a woman whom he’s managed to impregnate.

“The Golden Man” has the tawdry hallmarks of scores of other sci-fi yarns Dick churned out for pulp magazines in the early 1950s, its impoverished style reflecting the author’s desperate financial circumstances. But it also has the distinctive PKD imaginative hooks that make his work so compelling. The story raises questions without actually stating them. What is Cris Johnson’s purpose? Where is he really from? Where has he gone? What will become of the pregnant woman he’s left behind, and to what will she give birth? It’s a neat little story. It might make a good movie. “Next” is not that picture, though.

It isn’t because there’s anything blasphemous about making major alterations in a Philip K. Dick story — Shakespeare gets defiled all the time, why not PKD? Dick’s sometimes crude fiction, all brainwaves and hallucination, already has the feel of raw material. But what’s the point of going to the trouble to acquire a PDK property, and then discarding it in order to make yet another generic Hollywood action movie? Why bother shoehorning Dick’s name into the credits? It may not be entirely accurate to say that nothing of the PKD tale survives in this film — the protagonist, played by Cage, is still named Cris Johnson, and he still has the gift of precognition (although now he can see only two minutes into the future, not half an hour). Everything else in the story is new, though, and for no good reason.

One can almost hear the ghost of Philip K. Dick crying out in torment at the news that Cris has been transformed into a small-time Las Vegas magician, working a seedy downtown casino under the stage moniker Frank Cadillac. (The name, he says, is a tribute to two of his favorite things, one of which is Frankenstein.) We first meet Cris sitting at the counter of a diner — a regular coffee-and-sandwiches kind of place — sipping a martini. Then we see him at the casino foiling an attempted heist that he sees coming from two minutes away. Gun-wielding security goons at first think he’s the bad guy, so Cris, as though determined to prove them correct, takes off. There follows a funny sequence in which he gingerly snakes his way through the casino, dodging his pursuers by various witty, precognitive means. Then comes a slam-bang car chase that wouldn’t have been enormously out of place in a ’70s TV cop show. This ends with Cris pulling into a hideout-garage of some sort where, to our complete startlement, Peter Falk is waiting. “You can’t keep stealin’ cars,” he says, with grizzled wisdom. “That’s not a life.” (Falk quickly disappears from the story, never to return.)

Meanwhile, the FBI is on Cris’ trail, too, led by tough top agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore in a probably non-regulation, near-waist-length ponytail). She and her team have been spending a lot of time watching Cris’ magic act (who says the Feds have their priorities all wrong?), and they can’t figure out how he does his mind-reading tricks. Therefore, they’ve decided they desperately need his help on their latest case. It seems that terrorists have stolen a nuclear bomb from the “Russian Federation,” and have brought it to Los Angeles, where it is even now being prepped for mass destruction. Since Cris can see two minutes into the future, they want him to … well, I’m not sure what they expect him to do, actually.

Back at the diner again, a hot number named Liz (Jessica Biel) enters, and Cris starts making passes at her. Each one fails, but with this two-minutes-into-the-future thing, he’s able to start over again each time, until he finds an approach that works. Soon the two of them are cruising through the desert in her van, on their way to a bucolic Indian settlement where Liz sometimes teaches. As they exchange meaningful looks beside a towering waterfall, with cute little kids scampering amid the sunbeams, we can feel the movie begin to sag irreversibly.

It droops further when Liz and Cris, having known each other for all of about 24 hours, fall head-over-heels in love, or at least into bed, at a mountaintop motel. (Cris thinks Liz is “the one,” since she somehow enables him to see more than two minutes into any future in which she’s involved.) I realize the sight of Jessica Biel returning from a shower wearing only a towel might short-circuit anyone’s eloquence, but you kind of wish Cris could come up with something snappier than a poleaxed “You’re beautiful.” Or that Liz might muster a comeback more responsive than, “Wow.” But hey, they’re in love. You can tell: When he says, “I like rain,” she says, “I like rain, too.”

Despite the fact that one of the movie’s big destructo sequences soon erupts — with Cris being pursued down the side of the mountain by an avalanche of logs, boulders, vans, trains, possibly whole buildings and mountain trolls, too — the movie edges ever closer to tedium. The digital action is loud and no doubt expensive, but a lot of it is familiar from the sort of TV commercials in which people walk around in real time as slo-mo mayhem reigns all around them. The director, Lee Tamahori (“xXx 2: The Next Level”), hasn’t managed to impose a unifying visual style on the chaos — the endless running and shouting, the machine-gun ballets played out on dull rooftops and in even duller loading bays — and so the action has no lift to it. And whenever the generic tumult comes to a brief, blessed halt, bad dialogue rushes in to fill the void. At one point, Moore — impossibly miscast in a Bruce Willis type of role — tries to talk down a terrorist: “Release the hostages,” she shouts. “You can get out of this.” Says the terrorist: “Don’t patronize me!”

“Next” isn’t as flamboyantly bad as Cage’s last movie, “Ghost Rider” (which made a ton of money, something this pro forma outing is unlikely to do). But you know you’re in for not much when Cage starts out the picture wearing that doleful, please-pat-my-head expression he adopts whenever there’s nothing going on that places any demand on his well-known acting talent. Here, it’s an expression he never has cause to shed. It’s possible that less-interesting things could be done with this ungainly material, I suppose. But only if there’s a sequel.

(“Next” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

“Zoo”: Northwest Mounties

Now that movies like “Happiness” and “Little Children” have brought us sympathetic portrayals of child-molesters, has the time come for a picture that offers non-judgmental consideration of another sexual minority, men who enjoy having sex with horses? On the evidence of this short, unclassifiable work by Seattle filmmaker Robinson Devor, the answer is no.

The movie is based on a true story that took place in the town of Enumclaw, Washington, in 2005, when a man was brought to a hospital emergency room suffering from severe internal injuries of which he soon died. Tracking the car that anonymously dumped him off, police were led to a horse ranch that was being used as a sort of party site by a group of men, drawn together on the Internet, who called themselves “zoos.” There was no doubt about what they’d been up to with the resident stallions, since they had videotaped their activities. But since there was no state law against bestiality at the time, none of the men was prosecuted on that charge. (One of them was fined $300 for trespassing, but given a suspended sentence.)

Obviously, relating this story would be a major challenge for any filmmaker. Devor has chosen to go the arty route. In the movie’s production notes, he asserts the inspiration of such high-toned pictures as “Hiroshima mon amour” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Happy Together.” The presiding influence, however, is clearly the work of documentarian Erroll Morris, in particular his disturbing 1988 classic, “The Thin Blue Line.” In Devor’s film, as in Morris’, the colors are beautifully muted and the images have a meditative stillness. Even the score, with its pulsing echoes of Philip Glass, recalls Morris’s movie.

However, Morris had an important story to tell — a tale of gross injustice. Devor is simply dealing with a group of — let’s say it — perverts, and the only injustice is that inflicted on the horses. (The picture is rigorously non-sensational: none of the men’s horsing around is graphically depicted.) The movie consists of scripted reenactments, and is cast largely with actors, but what is the point of it? It’s so neutral in its assessment of these men, so fastidiously even-handed, that it’s virtually immaterial to the subject. On the one hand, the men say they simply have a greater-than-usual love of horses. But wait — were the horses not forced to participate in these equine orgies against their will? Are animals capable of informed consent? Well, maybe. But maybe not.

What you take away from this movie — apart from the hope that Devor will soon find a more meaningful subject on which to focus his not-inconsiderable filmmaking skills — is a feeling of deep and wearying dismay. The picture doesn’t ask us to react to its story, only to absorb it. Its refusal to muster an emphatic response to the uncomplicated issue it presents is the most depressing thing about it.

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