The latest attempt to cash in on the Philip K. Dick library follows a familiar Hollywood pattern in which a few intriguing ideas are swamped by the demands of a big-budget, star-driven vehicle. Half of Next is a clever, unpredictable thriller that plays with Dick's customary obsessions with time and reality. The other half is a sloppy, bloated adventure marred by cheesy special effects and some equally cheesy acting. Next might gain some attention by filling the void in action pictures before the onslaught of summer blockbusters, but it won't add any luster to Nicolas Cage's resume.
Cage plays Cris Johnson, whose paranormal abilities allow him to see exactly two minutes into the future. Johnson is hiding out in plain sight as a lounge magician in Las Vegas, content to score a few grand at blackjack tables rather than donate his brain to federal research scientists. But the feds come calling anyway, in the person of FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), who has decided that Johnson is the one person in the world who can locate a nuclear bomb missing somewhere in Los Angeles.
Johnson is more interested in connecting with Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel), the mysterious but beautiful woman who appears in his visions sitting in a coffee shop, bathed in a golden glow. Arranging a meeting, Johnson persuades Liz to let him accompany her to a Havasupai reservation near the Grand Canyon, where schoolchildren are apparently teaching her how to speak their language.
Ferris uses high-tech surveillance gear to track the duo to a romantic motel nearby. (She would have done better to use the gear to find the bomb itself.) Liz has in fact fallen in love with Johnson, overnight, after a few corny sleight-of-hand tricks. Alerted by the feds' presence, the nuclear terrorists convene at the motel as well. Liz is kidnapped, forcing Johnson to join forces with Ferris in a chase to recover her and the bomb.
Every now and then a scene in Next will end badly, say with the death of one of the principals, or the destruction of southwest California. But Johnson can simply rewind the tape in his head and start the scene afresh, now aware of how to avoid traps. It's a fun effect that in films like Groundhog Day led to some profound reflections on destiny and free will. Director Lee Tamahori is content to turn the gimmick into a way to escape plot jams, a sort of free pass out of narrative dead ends. The script to Next has plenty of them, one or two egregious enough to demand ticket refunds.
One thing Next does prove is that while Julianne Moore can play many roles, a steely-eyed, tart-tongued, sharpshooting FBI agent is not one of them. She does manage to appear interested in the film's outcome, something Cage, sporting an Elvis dye job and a truly scary makeup design, is utterly unable to achieve.