Some people dislike Nicholas Cage for what they see as his wooden acting, his flat lack of emotion. Whether that is a fair criticism, it serves him well in Next, in which he plays a man who always knows what is about to happen and so is never surprised when it does. Does that make it a time travel film? The point could be argued, and in this page we argue it.
In the end, it seems that this story has more in common with Minority Report than with Frequency: a story in which precognitive prediction of probable future events creates the illusion of time travel without providing real knowledge of the future.
Thanks go to Jim Denaxas for our copy of this one.
One of our readers called our attention to a Nicholas Cage vehicle under the title Next, in which he plays Cris Johnson a.k.a. Frank Cadillac, a stage magician who can do real magic, and who can see anything that is going to affect his own future with up to a two-minute lead time. He keeps this fact about himself secret, mostly by doing a Las Vegas act in which he sometimes uses real magic and pretends that it's a trick. However, F.B.I. agent Callis Ferris (Julianne Moore) has been watching him, because the casinos flagged him on suspicion of cheating and she has reached the conclusion that he wins simply because he knows the future--and she wants to recruit him particularly at the present time because someone has smuggled a nuclear device into California and she hopes his gift will enable them to find it.
However, capturing someone with a strong precognitive gift is not so simple. He is able to foresee everything that will happen at a confrontation down to the exact conversation, and then escape before the confrontation occurs. He is able to dodge bullets, and to outfight anyone in hand-to-hand combat by knowing their moves before they make them. Out-maneuvering teams trying to catch him proves to be child's play. So Ferris has her hands full.
There are two other complications, though. The second is that the people responsible for the bomb are also aware that the F.B.I. is trying to find Johnson, and whether or not they believe in his ability they have no intention of letting it be used against them, so they are attempting to kill him first. The first complication, though, is the eight-oh-nine girl, the mystery girl, Elizabeth "Liz" Cooper (Jessica Biel), the only thing in his life he ever saw more than two minutes before it happened. More than once he foresaw her enter a particular diner at nine minutes after eight, and he wants to know why. Thus twice a day he sits in that diner watching for her to enter, so he can learn who she is and why he keeps seeing her arrive. Of course, just as the F.B.I. and the terrorist bombers are tightening their respective nets around him, she makes her entrance, and he finds a way to get involved in her life, which means involving her in the events that are now unfolding.
The unspoken assumption is that Johnson is obtaining information about the future, and thus that such information is traveling from a point in the future to the present (or conversely that his mind travels ahead and returns from the future with the information), creating an anomaly as he then makes choices based on what he sees. Yet he tells us more than once that the tricky part about seeing the future is that you change it simply by having looked, and this raises our first question: is it possible to see the future, and then change it?
The film is based on the novel The Golden Man by respected science fiction author Philip K. Dick, which makes three films in a row in this series based on stories by well known authors. (We just completed analyses of Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder and Michael Crichton's Timeline, available here.) There is a separate screen story author credit, so again this analysis is based on the theatrically released film version, not the original print version.
As noted, the first question concerns the process of changing the future based on information drawn from the future. Sometimes such transmissions of information are benign, as with Mr. Scott's transwarp formula, the time traveler's lottery number, and transparent aluminum. Sometimes, though, the communication of information from the future can be temporally disastrous, as in Frequency and Back to the Future part 2.
To distinguish these, we need to grasp what happens when information travels to the past. In the Star Trek examples, we have the fact that certain scientific/technological concepts exist in the future such that they would be known to the time traveler, who brings them back and gives them to someone who might have made those discoveries himself at that time. For various reasons, all that matters is that someone will discover that knowledge and the one who brought it from the future will still learn it to bring. Thus nothing critical is changed. By contrast, when Bif Tannen gives himself the book containing a century of sports victories, he so changes the distribution of wealth and power in his home town that he undoes the time machine itself.
The hazard is whether the information from the future alters the past in such a way that it undoes itself. This would create an infinity loop. That is, Johnson foresees that Ferris is about to enter the garage and catch him, so based on that knowledge he leaves the garage, and she does not catch him; but since she did not catch him, he cannot have foreseen that she would. Thus any time Johnson makes a choice in order to avoid a bad future, he undoes that future and in the process erases his own knowledge of that future such that he can no longer have known and no longer have avoided it. Yet the moment he undoes his ability to avoid the undesirable future he restores the bad event and so can again see it. Time is trapped.
The solution here is the same as in Minority Report: Johnson is not seeing the future at all; no information is traveling to him from the future. He is rather obtaining a much more complete knowledge of the present and, like a computer projection, instantly deducing what will happen next. If you see a car coming directly at you, you know that it will hit you if you do not move, and in that sense you know the future. You know several possible futures, including what happens if you stay in the path of the car, what happens if you dive over the rail into the ditch, and what happens if you run the opposite direction toward the other shoulder. From that knowledge, you pick a future. Johnson is doing the same thing. The difference is that his enhanced abilities give him much more knowledge of the present state of the world (including what people around him are thinking and how quickly they can react) and reaches a much more vivid and precise prediction of the possible outcomes.
This also explains why he can work with possible futures. As with any predictive program, his own choices are part of the assessment. The first prediction is based on what he would do absent any knowledge of the outcome. Then, as we see in the diner when he considers approaching Liz, he runs the assessment again with the assumption that he will take specific action, and then reruns it several times with different chosen actions.
That also means it is not actually a time travel film; it is a film about a paranormal ability to predict the future with incredible accuracy. However, it is a subject broadly interesting within the realm of questions about time travel, and there are some interesting questions raised by how he uses this ability, so we will take a few weeks to look at the details. Also, some might object that he is seeing a real future, so we will have to return to this question.
At one point, Johnson attempts to escape capture by creating an avalanche and avoiding all the falling debris. It looks impressive, but it may be the simplest application of the ability demonstrated. Once objects are in motion down the slope, they careen erratically as they bounce off other stationary and moving objects. However, they do not do so unpredictably. Chaos theory tells us that there are far more variables involved in such an event than we can hope to identify and calculate, but not that anything within it is truly random. Rather, if we know the trajectory of a falling object, we can determine the exact point at which it will hit the ground; and if we know that point and know the exact shape and elasticity and mass and vector velocity of both surfaces as they collide, we can calculate exactly how the object will be deflected and what speed and trajectory it will have after the collision, as well as what effect the transfer of energy will have on the point of impact. The throw of the dice would be perfectly predictable if we had all that information, but we cannot have it, and we certainly cannot have it fast enough to calculate the outcome before they stop moving. It is thousands of times more complex with an avalanche. Objects are not of regular shape; energy is transferred in collisions putting more objects in motion; impacts will alter the shapes of some objects. Yet if you had perfect knowledge of all the variables and unimaginable processing speed, you could know exactly where every object would be every second of the tumble. Looked at the other way, it is possible to create a computer animation of an avalanche by giving it defining values for all the objects and surfaces and having it determine the interactions of every part. Johnson is doing the same thing, but that he is using real objects.
It becomes a bit more complicated when he starts using the ability to win fights. This incorporates a psychological factor. That is, the body of the attacker may be in motion, but its motion is not limited by the standard laws of physics. A boxer might feint with one fist and land a punch with the other; a kickboxer might not decide where his kick is going to land until after he sees which way the defender appears to be trying to block. The necessary data becomes much more complicated and the processing deals with more variables, while at the same time the response time is greatly reduced. Yet in another sense it is the same kind of problem, with a slight modification. That modification is that Johnson has to know the mental and physical preferences of his combatant well enough to be able to take the right action to get the desired result. This is not always so simple. As he repeatedly says, the future changes because you saw it. A skilled fighter might be aiming for my head, but if he sees my hands move to block that blow he will abandon it and go for an unprotected spot. It is complicated again by multiple opponents, because of the fact that Johnson has to consider a specific choice to see the consequences. If he foresees that Andy is going to jab his jaw but Bob is going to miss, he might think to dodge right, only to find that he moves directly into Bob's uppercut, so he has to envision another choice that escapes both Bob and Andy without engaging Carl. He does not have much time, during which he must see the trouble and imagine ways to avoid it until he finds one that works. Sure, he can see two minutes into the future, but what he actually does in the next two seconds will change everything in the fight thereafter, so he has to make the choices instant by instant.
Again we have the complication that he dodges bullets, and particularly those from snipers. The sniper takes careful aim, firing when he believes he has a shot. If you move too soon, he does not pull the trigger; if you move too late, you do not dodge the bullet. Johnson's reflexes and timing are themselves as much a power as the fact that he can see what is going to happen. If you knew the exact half-second you would have to leap abruptly aside, could you do it? It is little wonder that he is successful as a prestidigitator as well as a mentalist.
So someone with Johnson's precognitive ability probably could do all the dodging we see in the film, but it would take a lot of practice and it might not be so easy as he makes it look.
Avoiding bullets is one thing; avoiding people is entirely different. It may be this human element that leads Johnson to gamble against the house rather than against other players. Foreseeing the next card in the deck is simple. Foreseeing whether your opponent is going to draw, hold, raise, call, or fold is a bit more difficult.
What Johnson does, though, is predict the movements of pursuers with such precision that he is able to pass behind and between them knowing that despite the fact that they are being directed by radio from someone who has the entire floor flooded with camera views he will not be seen. Yet if his skill is as described, the ability to see his own fate up to two minutes in the future based on the present situation of the world and the most probable movements of everyone and everything during that time, the processing speed of that gift must be phenomenal.
If we simplify his situation, we could say that as he moves across the floor of the casino at any given intersection he can turn left, or right, or continue straight, or turn back. That's not everything, though, because he can also stand still, and as the railroad crossing incident demonstrates his velocity also matters. Yet let us keep it to the four options. One of them will have preference, either that he is continuing straight or that he is turning in the direction of a chosen exit, and so be the first checked. The assumption is that he is moving on a pre-chosen path and can see that within the next few seconds he is going to be seen by one of the pursuers on the floor. At that instant he has to stop moving in that direction and pick another; but he has to make the choice in his mind to take the second path, and so determine whether that second option will save him; if it does not, he must test a third, and then possibly a fourth.
Complicating this is that it's not merely direction; it is also timing that matters. As mentioned, he foresees that if he accelerates to eighty he will be hit by the train, so instead he accelerates to one hundred and so beats the train through the crossing. In much the same way, if he foresees that going straight will put him directly in view of one of his pursuers, by the time he has checked three other directions it is entirely possible that going straight will be perfectly safe. It is thus similarly possible that if he checks and finds that turning right is safe, and then turns right, the delay between checking and making the turn could make the difference between passing unnoticed into the bathroom and walking into the line of sight of three pursuers.
This can be avoided by including the delay in the parameters of the choice, that is, of knowing that it will take perhaps two seconds to get the answer and then posing the turn as something that will be chosen in two seconds, so that what is perceived is not what would happen if he made the turn now, but what would happen if he made the turn two seconds from now when he gets the answer to what will happen.
This all requires thinking ahead. Johnson cannot afford to stop and think about which way to go. He has to be thinking about which way he will go when he reaches that intersection still a few seconds ahead, because he needs to know before he reaches it which way to go.
It is still not as simple as that, because in a place like the casino floor the choices are highly complex and come in rapid succession. If he chooses to go right when he reaches the blackjack table, he will be confronted immediately with whether to turn by the roulette wheel, which puts him in another decision whether he went left toward the craps table or right toward the slot machines. Thus knowing that he is safe if he turns right at the blackjack table can't really tell him more than a few more seconds into the future, because he must account for the next several choices all of which have to be selected in the avoidance process.
In all of this, the psychology comes into play not only of the dozen pursuers and the watchers on the camera feed but of possibly hundreds of customers and other staff on the floor, any one of whom might abruptly step in the path, or recognize the entertainer and speak to him. The amount of information is daunting.
So it's plausible, but it is extremely complex.
The scene with the shooter in the casino might be the best example of the complications involved in Johnson's ability.
As the would-be shooter approaches, Johnson perceives that the man is about to draw a gun and shoot two people in his attempt to rob the casino. This obviously affects Johnson if it happens, if only because he is a witness who will be called upon to describe the shooter and testify against him. That also increases the probability that the shooter will kill him, although that is not part of what he sees. He makes a snap judgment to take action, and when the shooter approaches, he tackles and disarms the man.
It is a standard joke about psychics and fortune tellers who go out of business that of all people, they should have seen this coming. Yet although Johnson clearly saw what would happen if he did not anticipate the shooter's move, he did not foresee that within seconds of doing so he would be accosted by casino security, ordered to drop the gun, and threatened with detainment. The only reasons this could be so is either he did not have time to see the consequences of his choice between when he decided what to do and when he did it, or he did foresee them and decided they were preferable to the shootings. Two points rule out the latter, first that we do not see him foreseeing this, and second that he seems genuinely surprised and uncertain what to do when they order him to drop the gun and he haltingly attempts to explain that it is the other man's gun. Thus we must conclude that he did not see what was going to happen, and that must mean that he did not have time to see it.
This, though, raises questions about so many other events, and particularly his ability to avoid bullets. Consider a sniper. Two minutes, even fifteen seconds, is an eternity in that situation. It means Johnson knows when the sniper is going to shoot before the sniper knows. However, seeing the future changes it, because he now will act on the future he has seen. If he foresees that the sniper will shoot him when he takes the fifth step, he can plan to stop or turn on the fourth. But the sniper does not know that he is going to shoot on the fifth step, and so when Johnson stops or turns on the fourth he does not pull the trigger, but instead reacquires his target. That means that Johnson will be shot standing at the position of the fourth step, or in some position beyond that on his new course. But this means that the sniper is going to shoot him if he can, and there are undoubtedly a nearly infinite number of possible shots and thus of possible courses which will not avoid the shot. Yet given that each possible future takes time to foresee, Johnson would have to be very lucky to foresee one which will avoid the shot.
Remember, he does not actually foresee how to avoid the undesireable future; he foresees what the future will be if he does what he is choosing. Thus, as we see in the search for the girl, he must mentally keep choosing possibilities until he finds one that works. Each of those mental choices takes time, or he would have known that taking the gun from the casino shooter would result in fleeing from security.
So the ability has some significant limitations which the film does not seem to treat consistently.
Twice in the film Johnson uses his ability to see the future to foresee what would happen in a social situation. These, too, are interesting in what they tell us.
The first time is interesting because Johnson wants to avoid meeting Callis Ferris entirely but first wants to know what would happen if he met her. This raises a serious question concerning in what sense he has to "choose" a path in order to see what will happen. To illustrate, let's look at the other such event.
Johnson is sitting in the diner when the long-awaited Liz Cooper arrives, and using his precognitive skills he preplays several variations on how to meet her, each of which goes badly. This we understand. If he needs a few seconds to see a few minutes, he can sit there and think of doing this, or that, or the next, until he determines that the way to meet the girl is to allow himself to be floored by the estranged boyfriend and then talk his way into a ride. Yet we understand throughout that whatever future works, Johnson will do that so that he can meet the girl.
The problem with the Ferris meeting is that from the beginning he knows, and we know, that he has no intention of meeting her. He is not staying because he plans to meet her; he is staying because he wants to know what would happen if he did. But that means that the most probable future from the moment he is aware that she is coming is that he will leave before she arrives, he will never meet her, and they will never have that conversation. In order for him to see that conversation, he has to make it probable that it will happen, and he cannot do that simply by wondering what would happen if he did. He must decide that he is staying and that what he foresees will not change his mind. That is simply not the situation. He has already decided that he is not staying, and that he is never going to meet her. All he can foresee is that he will leave just before she arrives.
There is a solution to this problem: Cris Johnson is not limited to seeing the probable future based on his choices, but can see futures that are improbable, even impossible. Like Maud d'ib of Dune, he can see all imaginable futures and choose between them by his actions in the present. He can know the consequences of actions he has no intention of doing, choices he would never make, simply by wondering what would happen were he to do them.
That makes him much more powerful than we were led to believe. It also opens an entirely new level of problems for our understanding, concerning what exactly is a possible future.
We return to our first question: is this time travel? That is, we previously concluded that if Johnson is seeing the actual future and then changing it, he must be undoing the information on which he makes his decision, and so creating an infinity loop by means of an informational inverted grandfather paradox: he undoes the events whose existence is necessary for him to foresee them. But some might suggest that the reality in this story is not a single timeline, but a specific type of divergent dimension theory, the concept peculiar to such fiction as Multiverser, that at every point at which two futures are possible, both are actualized in different universes. This is the concept of a multiverse to which Schrödinger was objecting when he created his famous thought experiment of his eponymous cat, which has since been used by advocates of the theory to say that that which he declared was absurd was in fact the nature of reality. Every possible universe exists, and it's simply a question of determining in which one we are.
This would mean that when Cris Johnson foresees his meeting with Callis Ferris, he is able to see not a future that will never happen but the future of one of many possible but highly improbable future universes all of which diverge from the present one.
We have to ask, though, what constitutes a "possible" future. Presumably Johnson cannot foresee a universe in which he suddenly grows wings and flies away, because that is not within his ability; nor would it be either possible or helpful for him to foresee that universe in which Ferris suddenly has the ability to teleport infallibly to his location. We would exclude those as impossible futures. Yet how could it be possible for Ferris to catch Johnson at that garage, given that he already knows she is coming and already intends to avoid her? The scene he foresees can only happen in that universe in which he voluntarily awaits her arrival. That will only happen if he foresees that he can do so without being caught (which he cannot), or if he suddenly becomes someone else who does not wish to avoid capture (which he will not), or if he did not have the ability to foresee the future. Yet if he did not have the ability to foresee the future, he could not be here--it is that ability that has brought both Johnson and Ferris to this time and place--and if it is only possible futures diverging from this one, we already know that in this universe he has the ability to foresee the future. So in that sense, the universe in which Cris Johnson waits to be caught by Callis Ferris is just as impossible as the ones in which he grows wings or she teleports. We can imagine them happening, but they cannot happen without changing the rules of reality. For Johnson to foresee his meeting with Ferris as he does in the film, he must be able to use his precognitive ability to determine the most probable outcome of hypothetical choices, choices he knows he will never make under any circumstance, and thus futures that could never happen.
Divergent dimension theory does not make it possible for impossible futures to be foreseen. We can foresee the consequences of what Johnson might do, and we can engage in the theoretical outcomes of what he can imagine doing, but what he would not or could not do cannot be the future in any universe and so cannot be foreseen as an actual future. Again, the notion that information is traveling from the future, that Johnson's vision travels through time, fails. We are forced back to our understanding of his foresight as the prediction of the most likely of all possible futures based on what he and everyone else are most likely to do and what is most likely to happen because if it.
We are also not saved by parallel dimension theory. If the same exact people exist in every parallel universe, they--including Johnson--will do the same things, and we learn nothing. If people are different, we cannot know how those differences matter, and again we learn nothing.
Thus we end where we began: Next is an interesting study of a complex (if not always consistent) predictive ability, but does not involve any time travel of any kind.