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An episode of ‘24’ has more thrills than ‘Next’

Actors and filmmakers just seem to be going through the motions

A nuclear thriller with a wonderfully preposterous premise, “Next” generates surprisingly little suspense. An average episode of “24” conveys more conviction and excitement. The actors and filmmakers appear to be going through the motions, temporarily incapable of delivering a valid performance or suspending disbelief.

Especially disappointing is Julianne Moore, who can be so brilliant in housewife roles (“Safe,” “Far From Heaven”) but fails to convince as an action-movie heroine. Cast as Callie Ferris, an FBI counter-terror agent who is trying to stop a nuclear bomb from wiping out Los Angeles, she seems simultaneously shrill and wooden.

Nicolas Cage, the co-producer as well as the star, does not fare much better when he’s playing a Las Vegas magician, Cris Johnson, who can do much more than parlor tricks. Capable of seeing into the future, at least for two-minute stretches — and equally capable of acting upon what he sees — he has Midas-like powers that defy even the shaky logic of time-travel stories.

In one especially ludicrous sequence, which is meant to demonstrate Cris’ ability to alter destiny, multiple Johnsons start turning up all over the landscape, filling the screen like the many John Malkoviches that populate one room in “Being John Malkovich.” The chief difference is that Malkovich (or his character) realized he was part of an absurdist joke.

If Cage recognizes the humor in his role, he doesn’t communicate it. The same goes for Jessica Biel, cast in the thankless role of Liz, the love of Cris’ life, who rejects him many times, then decides to accept him when he outwits her stalker ex-boyfriend.

What do Liz and Cris have in common, aside from their loathing of her ex? What could they possibly see in each other? She’s a schoolteacher, he’s a gambler with a psychic gift, but they’re just ideas, not fully developed characters. Everything depends on the apparently predestined connection between these people, yet it’s never convincingly established by the actors or the script.

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Philip K. Dick’s short story, “The Golden Man,” inspired “Next,” which is the latest film from New Zealand’s dizzyingly eclectic filmmaker Lee Tamahori, who directed the classic low-budget domestic drama, “Once Were Warriors,” as well as the 2002 James Bond entry, “Die Another Day.”

This time Tamahori does little more than direct traffic, and even on that level he fails. The more Cages there are on-screen, the more complicated “Next” becomes. Yet there’s no pay-off. The final twist, which requires Chris to rescue Liz from what appears to be a continuous loop of threats and potential catastrophes, is deeply unsatisfying.

The script is the work of Paul Bernbaum (“Hollywoodland”), Jonathan Hensleigh (“Armageddon”) and Gary Goldman, who was an executive producer on another Dick adaptation (“Minority Report”) and worked on the script of “Total Recall,” which was based on Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Some very good films have been made from Dick’s stories, most obviously “Blade Runner.” But “Next,” alas, is not one of them.