Does the tale of an incorruptible government agent caught up in a clandestine time travel adventure sound familiar? Depending on what year you’re currently standing in, we could either be referring to Tony Scott’s Déja Vu (2006) or Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020).
Both are action-oriented science fiction films that revolve around traveling to the past; both star members of the Washington family (Denzel and his eldest son, John David, respectively); and both push the boundaries of what is possible in the genre. That is to say they take well-worn genre concepts we’ve all seen a trillion times and presents them in fresh and unexpected ways.
For instance, Déja Vu takes the classic car chase set piece and injects it full of sci-fi nitrous when the hero uses a special rig to pursue a vehicle in the past (a reverse Minority Report situation, if you will). Fourteen years later, Nolan took this a step further with Tenet‘s inverted car chase, in which a pair of vehicles are running along two different time streams.
Time travel isn’t just a superfluous genre gimmick in either project, it is an integral part of the storytelling that takes on new meaning as their narratives chug along, simultaneously surprising the viewer while allowing them to work out certain things for themselves. They are, simply put, two sides of the same temporally-displaced coin. The main difference between them is scope: Déja Vu is more self-contained, unfolding across a single city, while Tenet opts for the global canvas of the James Bond franchise.
We learn the winding rules of each universe through the eyes of ATF investigator Doug Carlin (Denzel) and unnamed CIA operative The Protagonist (John David), two federal agents with years of experience who are suddenly out of their element when the idea of turning back time becomes a part of their procedural toolbox. While the characters enter the picture with seasoned track records, they become a much-needed proxy for the audience: initially skeptical and soaking in the mandatory chunks of exposition.
By the time the credits start to roll, however, you’ve become something of an expert yourself, ready for an immediate rewatch and excited to catch all the subtle clues you missed on the first go-around with trained eyes.
And even then, there are more layers to peel back — more questions formulated about the mechanics of time travel works in these labyrinthine realities. No matter how airtight you think your script might be, there are always going to be paradoxes and gaps in logic, but so long as you keep things interesting and grounded, the inherent flaws of the genre seem less egregious.
During an interview with CBS in late 2006, Denzel Washington explained that Scott “didn’t want to make a science fiction movie” with Déja Vu, “he wanted to make a science fact movie.” Rather than get too deep in the weeds on the far-fetched nature of the premise, the late filmmaker “dug deep and did a lot of research about surveillance” in an effort to give it a more realistic backbone.
To that end, the concept of time travel isn’t even broached until half an hour into the 2-hour runtime once we’re already invested in Carlin’s hunt for the domestic terrorist who killed hundreds of innocent people by blowing up a ferry in Louisiana . It’s a rather smart move, starting us out in a place of realism with a by-the-books government investigation that ultimately takes a turn onto Genre Boulevard.
Sitting down with Hollywood.com, Scott touched on the precarious tightrope one must walk in science fiction storytelling. “I thought this is a dangerous movie,” he said. “If you get it a little bit wrong, you’re screwed. Dangerous [both] Artistically and conceptually … That’s why I try to ground everything in reality in terms of my performances and my actors and also the world we touched. But science fiction…if you get it just a little bit wrong…you get one bad laugh from the audience and [you lose them].”
Tenet lays its sci-fi cards out the table about 15 minutes into the two-and-a-half hour runtime, which makes a lot of sense, given the sheer amount of exposition contained within Nolan’s most ambitious undertaking to date (that is until Oppenheimer arrives this summer). Nevertheless, we still start in a place of believability — the heart-thumping world of espionage and terrorist prevention — so that when The Protagonist sees an inverted bullet reverse its trajectory for the first time, he’s just as surprised as the audience. Speaking with ComplexJohn David Washington admitted that the screenplay was so confusing, that his initial read-through took over four hours.
Despite this knowledge of the full plot, the actor’s understanding of inversion waxed and waned with the blockbuster production. “Some weeks I was like, ‘Yeah I got it, I totally know what we’re doing.’ Other weeks, I was asking questions as if I was a second-grader,” he said. “Just the most basic of questions, and always asking the questions, and [Nolan] was patient with me, so I appreciate that.”
Nolan’s goal, as we stated above, was to breathe new life into established imagery by drilling down to the heart of why moviegoers enjoy them in the first place. “Why do we want to see a car chase in the film? Why do we want to see a plane crash? What’s the excitement of that? How does that work?” the filmmaker explained to NPR. “And trying to present it differently to the audience and for myself to look at it differently, turn it upside down, if you like, and time can do that for us.”
Déjà Vu is now streaming on Peacock.
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