FREQUENCY: a nostalgic sci-fi reverie of American family values (2000 in Film #17)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 28th, Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency  

As someone who is a sucker for a good time-travel yarn, Frequency scratched an itch for me as a viewer, even if it did so in more of a sedate manner than this sub-genre is used to.

When most people consider time-travel stories, certainly at the movies, their mind will go straight to the iconic staple of that genre: Back to the Future. There had been films concerning interlopers across time before, of course; 1962’s La Jetee, later remade as Twelve Monkeys, or earlier with George Pal’s seminal 1960 version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and numerous after that, but Robert Zemeckis’ film sent time-travel into the cultural consciousness and made it *fun*. It added wonder to what has always been a knotty science-fiction concept, even when played for eccentricity or colour, as it was often on television particularly in the 1960’s with shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who or The Time Tunnel.

Frequency is a different texture of time-travel film because it not only takes the subject matter more seriously, but it frames the broader science-fiction concept underpinning it in overly non-science-fiction terms. Gregory Hoblit’s film is about loss, about coming to terms with the past, and about the desire and fantasy wish-fulfilment of changing your own personal history. Life didn’t pan out for Jim Caviezel’s John Sullivan the way he might have imagined after his heroic fireman father, Frank (played with all-American sincerity by Dennis Quaid), dies in a fire when he is just a little boy, and their strange, almost magical connection via an old CB radio—thanks to a mystical aurora borealis in the sky—gives them the chance to not just connect, but actively play around with temporal physics. It’s a personal father and son drama with time-travel trappings.

In that sense, Frequency owes a debt to anthology science-fiction such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, in attempting to ground the subject matter in a level of humanity. The message is simple: you *can* go home again.

A trend I’m finding with American cinema being produced at the end of the 1990’s through this series is that a great deal of films seem anxious about the century, indeed the millennium, ahead, and are glancing back at the nation’s own history through a variety of lenses.

U-571 recently attempts to distort American success in World War Two as a way of ameliorating the troubling legacy the country crafted in the wake of that all-encompassing conflict. Rules of Engagement, on the flip side, examines the moral character of the American military machine and can’t quite yet bring itself to excoriate that system. The Next Best Thing doesn’t really understand that being gay is ok, while 28 Days revels in the entitled privilege of the American middle class and ultimately lets it off the hook. Everywhere you look, America is refracting its society. Frequency is one of the better examples of that in how it nostalgically glances back at the 1960’s, wishing dearly for a simpler America, a simpler time, and a return to wholesome family values. Talking via a CB is a symbolic representation of that – old technology repurposed as a conduit between different eras.

Initially, Sylvester Stallone was tapped for the Frank Sullivan role here but there is no doubt Stallone sheer force of character would have overshadowed the tone and texture of Hoblit and screenwriter Toby Emmerich’s film (Emmerich incidentally nabs himself an acting role as John’s buddy, Gordy). Quaid is a better choice because he’s a solid, un-showy actor who you can believe as the honest, earnest firefighter with the homely, beautiful wife (a pre-Lost Elizabeth Mitchell) and baseball-loving young son. Caviezel, not quite yet infamous for his role as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, has a similar understated angst as the grown up John, a worn out cop in a de-saturated 1999 who teeters on the edge of a dark, future dystopia.

In some sense, so does Frank in 1969. The American Dream was certainly about to end, with Vietnam in full swing, the Manson murders on the horizon, and the Watergate scandal and economic depression yet to come in a difficult 1970’s. Two men at the end of two relatively progressive decades (though the 90’s was far more socially and politically stable than the 60’s), looking ahead at an uncertain future, and wistful for a calmer past. Frequency, in some sense, serves as an allegorical microcosm for America as a whole, perhaps, and in that sense works well in a science-fiction context as it drills down into character and emotion as opposed to figuring out ‘string theory’. We hear scientists on the TV in the background discussing the underpinning physics of the story but Frank & John are meat & potatoes men. To them, it might as well be magic.

That gives Frequency a certain charm, in that it’s pure fantasy, on a conceptual and emotional level. Who hasn’t lost a parent or loved one and wished they could talk to them again, or go back in time and spend one final day with them? Frank gets the joy of hearing from his son in the future while John, depressed and unable to capture the family life and love his long lost father had, is renewed by talking to the father whose death marked his entire adult life. In that sense, Frequency owes a debt to 90’s pictures such as Ghost or The Sixth Sense, and the latter’s rampant box office success and immediate place in popular culture in 1999 no doubt helped get Frequency on the board. Hoblit’s film is as slow, measured and quiet in many places as those character-led touchstones, where the mystical, supernatural truths were background rather than foreground.

If Frequency falls down, it’s when by necessity it turns into a detective thriller across the final half of the film. As John and Frank cause ripples in time due to them saving the latter’s life, Emmerich and Hoblit feel the need to introduce cause and effect, stakes as a result of changing the fabric of time. On one level, this works as a means of reflecting how the past is never quite settled, that we are all haunted by our choices and mistakes. “The past is a funny thing, we all have skeletons in the closet. You just never know when they’re gonna pop up and bite you in the ass.” John remarks, and hence Frequency feels the need to have John & Frank team up, across a 30 year distance, to try and stop a corrupt cop turned serial killer destroying their family.

While on a thematic level it tracks, and allows for an enjoyably wacky final battle as John and Frank fight the same man at the same time in two different time periods, it almost cheapens the wholesome aspect of the story. The killer, Jack Shepard, is a destructive totem for the darkness that morphs and changes the America that John & Frank knew, a representation of how the family ideal, the ‘dream’, has been shattered over the years. He’s a Manson-in-waiting in the psychedelic 60’s, and he’s an embittered old cop in the 90’s, and it does fit the broader ideas the film is playing with, but it feels cheaper than the elegant science-fiction beginnings of the film. You almost wish Frequency hadn’t felt the need to morph into a lacklustre murder mystery to make its point.

This never prevents Frequency from being an entertaining and well-constructed piece of work, and a different shade of time-travel story than we’re often used to as audiences. It did relatively well at the box office, clawing back double its budget, and remained enough in the mind’s eye of audiences that in 2016, a short-lived TV series adaptation ran for one season and built on the premise, aware that you could make a vaguely sci-fi procedural series out of the time connection concept. It lacked the innate, nostalgic charm of Hoblit’s film, however, which feels particularly locked into a certain turn of the millennium glance back at a more idealised American past. 

Frequency could almost be a capstone for American storytelling’s 90’s fascination with re-examining and deconstructing the 1960’s, even if that trend wasn’t quite ready to completely disappear just yet.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

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