This article appeared in Issue 20 ofFrontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
From H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" to the "Back to the Future" film trilogy to "The Terminator" to every other "Star Trek" episode, the notion of time travel has been a staple of science fiction. "Frequency" is the latest entry into the genre, only instead of traveling through time, a father and his fully-grown son are able to cross the vast expanse of three decades via an old ham radio and have a conversation. If you are able to suspend your disbelief and just 'go with' the film's central conceit, and have an eye for detail, then "Frequency" works marvelously.
The film starts in the fall of 1969, where New York firefighter Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid of "Any Given Sunday") shares a home with his loving wife Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) and his six-year old son Johnny (Daniel Henson). When he's not busy teaching his son how to ride a bike or showing affection to his wife, Frank likes to surf the airwaves with his ham radio. However, on a certain night in October, some freaky solar flare activity creates some unusual effects. In addition to lighting up the Manhattan skyline with some rarely seen aurora borealis, Frank finds the range of his radio has increased remarkably as a result of the atmospheric ionization.
Skipping ahead to the same date in the year 1999, where Johnny (James Caviezel of "The Thin Red Line") is all grown up, working as a homicide detective alongside long-time family friend Satch (Andre Braugher, esteemed alumnus of "Homicide: Life on the Street"). With his father Frank long dead and buried for almost thirty years now, Johnny lives in the family home alone. While entertaining his best friend Gordo (Noah Emmerich of "The Truman Show") and his son, he comes across Frank's old ham radio and decides to give it a whirl. Coincidentally, the atmospheric conditions above New York are similar to the same night thirty years prior.
Johnny turns on the old radio, and immediately connects with another voice-- his father's, from 1969. Though the two men are both initially skeptical about the phenomenon they are experiencing, they quickly accept the fortuitous hand that fate has dealt them and quickly catch up on thirty years of history. In another interesting bit of coincidence, Johnny has caught his old man the day before he died while battling a warehouse blaze. Naturally, Johnny tries to warn his father of the impending danger and change thirty years of history. Unfortunately, Johnny's attempts to manipulate past events have some unpredictable and serious consequences on the present-- serious enough to put his own life in jeopardy.
Yes, in order for the story to work, three coincidences are necessary. In addition to the script's contrived reliance on synchronicity, I initially found myself unimpressed with the caliber of dialogue, which made the conversations sound stilted and scripted. Furthermore, Caviezel's acting left a lot to be desired, especially when contrasted against Quaid's acting chops. I think I was also in a perturbed mood given that I was sitting next to some guy whose his idiot girlfriend had no idea what was going on in the film and required constant and verbose narration to keep up with the on-screen action.
However, as the story developed and things got interesting, I found myself actually suspending my disbelief and enjoying the film as it unfolded. This is one of those films where subtle clues are left for you to illustrate how things are changing. Just as in the first "Back to the Future" film, everything on-screen in the film's first half-hour was set-up for the contrast that would be shown as the second act got underway. Only in the case of "Frequency", as the Sullivans muck around with the time-line, changes come hard and fast in a series of genuine 'gee whiz' moments, backed up by the requisite special visual effects. Mind you, if you've seen enough of these 'time travel' type stories, you'll probably be quick to pick-up on some of the inconsistencies and paradoxes that plague the genre, especially in the film's climactic struggle in which the changes to the time-line are too fast to keep track of. But it is a small quibble.
Another saving grace of "Frequency" was the father-son story that stayed front-and-center throughout the film. It was quite intriguing watching the father and son pairing trying to solve a crime together, driven by the heartfelt desire to protect their family. Though Caviezel was somewhat wooden through most of the film, Quaid picked up the slack, and somehow, these two actors worked well together, right up to the film's big emotional pay-off in its final moments. Braugher, who is probably one of the most under-appreciated actors in the business, acquits himself well playing a key character that bridges both time periods, acting as a friend and confidant to both the younger and the older Sullivan.
I must admit, I found myself pleasantly surprised by "Frequency". It is one of those films in which you'll have to pay very close attention to catch all the really cool things that are going on in the story. With its intriguing premise, some decent acting by Quaid, a story that actually gets better the further it gets along (as opposed to one that gets worse, such as "Rules of Engagement"), and some top-notch special effects, "Frequency" is not a bad way to spend an evening-- just be sure to leave the idiot girlfriend/boyfriend at home.