2000, PG-13, 117 min. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Starring Dennis Quaid, James Caviezel, Andre Braugher, Elizabeth Mitchell, Shawn Doyle.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 28, 2000
Frequency reconfirms the classic Hollywood axiom that the dumbness of sci-fi/fantasy movies increases in direct proportion to the profundity of the science involved. And yet, due largely to the tremendous innate warmth and conviction of leads Quaid and Caviezel (The Thin Red Line), you may find yourself cutting a surprising amount of slack for this patently ridiculous tale about a modern man talking with his long-dead father through a space-time rift created by the aurora borealis. The father (Quaid) is Frank Sullivan, a New York City fireman and model parent whose greatest passion apart from his soulmate wife, Julia (Mitchell) is his ham radio. One night, while the northern lights are in their full spectral glory, he tunes in to the same frequency as a young operator who not only shares his last name but also his Queens address and undying devotion to the Mets. A few more probing questions reveal a seeming impossibility: The young man is Frank's son Johnny (Caviezel), now all grown up and a detective with the NYPD. Somehow the atmospheric disturbance has jiggered with Einsteinian space in a way that allows regular radio waves to connect a man in 1969 with his son in 1999. This violation of natural law, predictably enough, generates all sorts of migraine-making conundrums, including a murder that apparently wasn't “supposed” to have ever occurred. Quite a bit is going on here, but the gist of the story is Quaid and Caviezel's frantic efforts to sort through a spaghetti bowl of proliferating alternate timelines to reconnect with the one they've unintentionally disrupted. Of course, all time-travel films both good (Time After Time) and bad (Time Cop) ultimately bite off more than they can chew in trying to create logical-seeming constructions that are elastic enough to encompass situations outside our normal frame of understanding. But Frequency seems to labor even harder than most, with less notable success. Sometimes it goes way overboard in foreshadowing major plot developments with comically unsubtle zooms onto stuff we're supposed to file away for future reference. Other times, vexing questions and inconsistencies are left hanging, creating a sneaking suspicion that at some point Hoblit and screenwriter Toby Emmerich basically just gave up and decided to throw themselves at the mercy of their audience's ability to suspend disbelief. But movies being movies, there's an underlying alchemy at work that, in this case, allows the whole to register as more than the sum of its parts. Hoblit (Fallen) shows real artistry in charging key scenes with a sense of enchantment and tactile richness. And as corny and stilted as Emmerich's dialogue is throughout, he at least has a sense of fun and a flair for clever conceptual humor drawing on the possibilities of time travel (one especially good laugh awaits you stock-trading junkies out there). But most of all, Frequency benefits from the emotional investment and imagination with which Caviezel and Quaid infuse their sketchily written roles. These two appealing, effortlessly natural-seeming actors, like the Hollywood old-schoolers of their parents' generation (Lancaster, Caine, Mitchum) understand and accept their obligation to the wage-slaving slobs who make their charmed existences possible. It's good to know that, even if only on the abstract level, we're more than just butts in seats to them.