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Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 28 April 2000

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Starring Dennis Quaid, J
im Caiezel, Andre Braugher, 
and Elizabeth Mitchell

Written by Toby Emmerich

If you’re a hardened cynic, Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency will come across like a turkey shoot, ready to be picked apart. There’s illogic aplenty, some goofy fantasy elements, and warm, fuzzy sentiment oozing from its celluloid pores.  But since when has sentiment become a dirty word?  Did onlookers smirk and direct a jaded, “Yeah, right!” at the screen during the debut appearances of a dour guy with a black costume fetish and a bronchial condition, being chased through the galaxy by a carpet-chested wookie?  When the doe-eyed alien ambassador from Close Encounters gave an impish grin to Francois Truffaut, did audiences upchuck their popcorn and Mr. Pibb?  I think not. 

Frequency is a film that harks back to the spirit of optimistic, late seventies sci-fi, before Alien and Bladerunner set the more harsh, grim standard for what science fiction films have become. Since that earlier era of Spielbergian innocence, when a group of prepubescent rescuers could outmaneuver a road blockade by flying their bicycles into the moonlit sky, the screen has given way to ruthless terminators and a barren, gritty, blue-collar future most recently projected in Pitch Black.  But the tide is turning with films like the more hopeful “Frequency”. If you’re a sentimental romantic at heart, this chance-taking, surprisingly emotional time-travel journey should deliver an eye-dampening fix. Not since 1979’s Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells follows Jack the Ripper into late-seventies New York via time travel, has a movie dared to take such an outrageous concept to such entertainingly goofy heights.

The film opens in 1969, as Martha and the Vandelas’ “Heatwave” sears from the radio in a hopping New York neighborhood.  Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) is playing catch with his six-year old son, John, and baseball fever is in overdrive as the Mets take on the Baltimore Orioles during the World Series.  The elder Sullivan is a macho good ol’ boy; a spiritual cousin to Quaid’s cocksure, smartass astronaut Gordo Cooper from 1983’s The Right Stuff, whose Brooklyn accent is as thick as the firefighting uniform he dons before hosing down flames for a living.  However, Frank’s helmet and jacket aren’t enough to save him as he attempts to rescue a homeless girl from a fire-engulfed factory building one fateful summer day.  Young John and his hospital-nurse mother, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), are left behind to grieve.

Flash forward thirty years, and John’s life has taken several unexpected turns.  His long-term girlfriend is leaving him, and he’s opted to join the police force instead of continuing the Sullivan firefighting legacy. After unveiling a storage trunk with an antiquated ham radio that his father helmed religiously, John turns the dusty gadget on and hears a familiar voice.  Soon, he’s holding a conversation with his father, through a three-decade audio time warp. Frequency attempts to pin this phenomenon on some potent sunspots that are blazing outside the Sullivan home, illuminating the night sky in a cotton-candy haze of dancing pastel colors. 

But logic is not a major priority in Frequency.  Wisely, the film spends more time mining the intimate, emotional possibilities inherent in this premise, while downplaying the scientific rationale for why this retro-communication is made possible.  When Frank initially makes the connection that he’s actually talking to his son -- “Little Chief” -- as an adult, the father is defensive.  “I don’t know who you are,” he barks, unwilling to believe the unbelievable, “but when I find out….”  Soon, however, this tough-guy exterior breaks down, and the father-son bonding begins.  John reveals some World Series surprises, before dropping the big one -- mainly, the revelation that Frank will soon perish in the fatal fire, unless he can find another way out of the blaze.  Father Frank takes this over-the-airwaves advice, and escapes his destiny.

Unfortunately, meddling with fate has its price.  In this case, Frank’s survival results in a sinister twist:  because his wife is not called away from her hospital shift with news of his death, she is allowed to save a prolific serial killer recuperating there.  This unrepentant slime -- dubbed “The Nightingale Killer” as a result of his preference for nurses as victims -- will go on to murder a handful of additional victims, including John’s mother, unless John and Frank can use their time-tool to plot an alternative outcome. 

With John privy to the police department’s forensics files, the badge-wearing son can alert Frank to the chronology of the murders, telling him where to stand by to divert the killer and prevent the would-be killing from materializing.  This original concept brings up a Private Ryan-esque notion of whether the saving of one life is worth the potential for others to be jeopardized.  “If we don’t stop this guy,” the guilt-ridden John explains to his father-come-sleuth, “we’re gonna have to live with this for the rest of our lives.”

Frequency is gripping as a suspense thriller, but its primary strength is in the believable father-son bond established between Quaid and Caviezel.  When the hardened old patriarch bids the son farewell after their first radio communication, he signs out with a teary-eyed “I love you.”  You buy it.  Quaid is a likeable presence, with his mile-wide grin and “aw, shucks”, salt-of-the-earth presence.  He has lent these qualities to such lesser, recent films as Any Given Sunday, and another serial killer thriller, 1997’s Switchback.  However, the darker tone of those films ran counter to Quaid’s gung-ho presence. Like Harrison Ford, he’s too likeable to thrive in such grim environments, and Frequency is his most agreeable work since his brilliant turn in The Right Stuff. Meanwhile, Cavaziel compliments Quaid as the more intense John, who’s negotiating his own need for individuality with his passion for Frank’s old-school values.

Frequency concludes with one of those unending, Fatal Attraction-style finales, with people struggling across floors, grappling for guns, and jumping out of corners at just the right time.  Meanwhile, the time-travel bit, which allows people to remain absent for the convenience of the plot when they should be alive and kicking in the present, becomes increasingly hard to buy, especially when the murderer make his final appearance in both 1969 and 1999 simultaneously.  Then there’s the gooey, sentimental music that make way for the ending credits.  But wait a minute -- I’m taking on jaded cynic mode.  Open up and swallow Frequency’s far-fetched premise, and you might just find yourself yearning for those late-seventies years when feel-good sci-fi like E.T. was king.  

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