15 years ago, Nicolas Cage made the worst sci-fi movie of all time — and also his best
Sometimes science fiction movies are best when they make close to zero sense.
Did you hear the joke about the Zen master and the hotdog? He said, “Make me one with everything.” If this gave you a chuckle, there’s a good chance you’ll like the contemporary sci-fi cult sleeper Next. If you don't like this joke — delivered by Nicolas Cage in the film apropos of nothing — you won’t like the movie. And that would be a small tragedy.
Because in a world of airtight brilliant science fiction, a confidently and hopelessly sloppy future-tense story is fun as hell. Here’s why Next is a beautiful sci-fi mess that will make you smile.
Directed by Lee Tamahori, Next arrived in theaters on April 27, 2007, just a week before Spider-Man 3 gave the world scenes of emo Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) dancing like a maniac. This was also the same summer that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Shrek the Third, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and the first Michael Bay Transformers took the big screen. But when the best summer blockbuster is arguably a meh Harry Potter movie, you know something weird is happening.
Next was not a summer blockbuster. It was an utter box office flop. Starring Nicolas Cage as Cris Johnson, a man who can see two minutes into the future, the movie has the intellectual ambitions of a Christopher Nolan film and the execution of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “The Golden Man,” Next is riddled with plot holes and underbaked premises. If Cris can see two minutes into the future, when does the clock start? Two minutes from when? Why is everyone using analog watches to measure this interval? Why can he only see his own future? Most importantly, is Peter Falk — who appears at the beginning of the film in a strange, prolonged cameo — supposed to be his dad?
The fact that none of these questions has satisfactory answers is fine. If you read enough Philip K. Dick short stories, you’ll find all sorts of gaping plot holes and bizarre inconsistencies. The author of Solaris, Stanislaw Lem, rationalized some of Dick’s narrative shortcomings as intentional. For Lem and many fans of this type of concept-driven science fiction, nitpicking the details is a boring way to misunderstand the fun of the art.
This isn’t to say Next is a good or faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story. It’s not. But it does capture the earnest campiness of many of Dick’s more over-the-top stories. If you were reading a short story in which Cage’s character was behaving the way he does, you might just shrug your shoulders and chalk up the stiffness to a stylistic choice of the time. In a movie, a performance like this is harder to figure out.
So, what is Cage like in Next? Here’s the best way to describe it without ruining it: Imagine Gob (Will Arnett) from Arrested Development, but now imagine he’s a somewhat successful magician, and people take him seriously because he has a low-key superpower. If that doesn’t sound hilarious and fun, Next is probably not for you.
Jessica Biel and Julianne Moore support Cage in this paper-thin premise, and both actresses deliver straightforward performances that lend a veneer of plausibility to a nonsensical story. Why does Elizabeth (Biel) trust Cris about his future visions? Because Jessica Biel is a good actress. How does Agent Ferris (Moore) convince the entire FBI that they need to recruit a half-baked clairvoyant to help them track down a nuclear bomb? Because Julianne Moore is very convincing, even though you can see behind her eyes that she’s confused by the movie, too.
But one single detail — the idea that the law is chasing Cris because they want his help — is essential to understanding this bonkers movie. Next tricks you into just accepting silly premises like this. And before you can think about it, the film is already bulldozing its way to the next absurdity.
Yes, there’s a big twist in the end, and no, it doesn’t entirely make sense. However, what does make sense and what is real is this movie is fun as hell. For a sci-fi movie that fails to be coherent but is utterly watchable, Next is the beautifully tragic, underrated sci-fi cult classic you never knew you secretly loved.
Next is streaming on HBO Max.