Thank 'Back to the Future' for making an entire generation obsessed with traveling through time and the consequences of changing the past. What BTTF fan hasn't had endless arguments about the cause and effect and plausibility of multiple timelines? I suppose it prepared us to obsess over genre material like 'LOST', which used time travel in Season Five. And yet, despite my inherent enthusiasm and desire to see more of these stories, time travel remains one of the most challenging genre devices in modern cinema. It's so easy to mire the story in either too little or too much science.
'Frequency' is a 2000 New Line Cinema release, written by New Line Cinema Head of Production Toby Emmerich and directed by Gregory Hoblit. In this suspense thriller with a time travel twist, the travel is actually communication. An unusual aurora borealis connects 1969 with 1999, and a father and son are reunited over a HAM radio. John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) is a 36-year-old NYPD detective in 1999. His life is a wreck -- he drinks too hard and pushes his girlfriend away -- because he never quite recovered from his father's death 30 years ago. Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) is John's father and a firefighter in 1969. Tomorrow, he will face his final fire. As the two men reconnect, John gives Frank the information that saves his life.
But there are consequences to changing the past.
Because Frank survives, his nurse wife, Julia, unknowingly saves the life of the nefarious Nightingale Killer, and ultimately becomes one of his ten victims, seven more than he had originally killed. John Sullivan has traded one tragedy for something equally horrific. And worse, more lives are at stake. With access to all the murder files in 1999, John coerces his father, in 1969, to find and stop the killer before innocent lives are stuffed out. The question remains, will they be able to find the Nightingale Killer and stop him before the entire Sullivan family is murdered?
As a high concept, 'Frequency' is a fantastic idea. It twists the time travel genre by crossing it with a procedural thriller while, most importantly, infusing personal stakes. In execution, there's a lot to admire. Dennis Quad is a little broad, but hugely likeable as a '60s father. Jim Caviezel evokes harried desperation as he deals with the consequences of the world re-writing itself around him. I once read how the filmmakers constructed two identical sets on the same soundstage so the two leads could interact in real time. This (off screen) chemistry is what packs an emotionally punch and makes the film feel about as believable as it can. Andre Braugher, who plays John's boss in 1999 and Frank's friend in 1969, is another welcome face who grounds the implausible with a fine performance.
As time travel cinema, though, Frequency's changing-the-past-consequences rules seem vague at times. The film subverts obvious paradoxes by having John remember both versions of the past despite changing it -- I suppose this is because he has an open connection to 1969. But still, some things are affected instantly (broken glass, burn a desk), while others take longer (the decision to quit smoking or, if the radio broke in 1969, how did they ever begin talking?) to feel the ripple. In those small details, the film doesn't always hold up, and feels more like a fairytale than science fiction.
In revisiting 'Frequency', I found the serial killer element to be clever and well plotted overall -- the mystery thrives both in 1999 and 1969 without seeming repetitive -- but it brings up a few of those how-did-this-happen questions and doesn't always tonally match up with the rest of the film. It sticks out more than I remember on my initial viewings. I suppose this element makes the film feel very 1990s, when everything needed to be a high concept police investigation.
Despite its flaws, 'Frequency' remains a very well made, and generally well plotted, thriller with great heart and is an overall satisfying experience. It's not a classic by any means, but fans should enjoy revisiting it. For those who haven't seen it, it's probably one of those movies you'll catch on cable and really enjoy it, but never need to buy it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Frequency' comes to Blu-ray in a single-disc edition, housed in a standard blue eco-case. There are no signs of any Region markings or forced trailers. Popping the disc in the first time brings you the main menu; on repeat viewings, the film automatically starts where you last stopped watching.
Framed in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1, the AVC MPEG-4 encoded 'Frequency' is a terrific looking catalog title.
Thanks to well-preserved source material, there's very little to complain about. A few specs of dust pop up now and again, the opening shot of the sun looks fake, and there are some missed focus opportunities and grain spikes in a handful of dark shots. But that's it. The film stock's fine grain structure is consistent. No DNR (look at the faces where skin pores and hair follicles pop). No EE halos. No aliasing. No banding (even in that muddy CGI sun).
After vetting the transfer for flaws, there was nothing left to do, but sit back and enjoy. Good contrast and shadow detail set the stage. Colors are bold (especially in 1969), black levels are deep, and skin tones appear even and realistic. Resolution and depth are terrific as well (heck, sometimes you can see too much, such as the makeup/prosthetics used to age actors from 1969 to 1999). Usually, catalog titles don't look this good. They can feel faded and flat, but aside from a few of the CG shots and the fact that it was actually shot on film, one might assume this movie was made in the last couple years.
I was really surprised by the PQ. Too bad more catalog titles don't look as fresh as 'Frequency'. Fans should be pleased.
'Frequency' debuts on Blu-ray with an articulate, but underpowered 7.1 English DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
I'm not sure what happened, but 'Frequency' required a 7-12 dB boost to have my AVR match the volume at which I normally watch movies and television. Surprised by this, I popped in my 'Frequency' DVD. The original 5.1 Dolby Digital is cued louder, has more LFE punch, but is ultimately quite front heavy. If you don't own the DVD, flip between the 7.1 DTS-HD MA track and the 5.1 Isolated Film Score in the Special Features (see below) to hear what I'm talking about.
With the volume properly set to accommodate the low levels, I would say the 7.1 track is an overall improvement. Though the film is dialog-heavy, the discrete mix is filled with nuance. Musical notes and sound effects dance in the side and rear channels, pulling you into the film. Imaging and panning are excellent. Everything is clear and well balanced.
However, in films with big fire scenes, I typically look forward to guttural booms and roars. Also, the sequences where the past is re-writing the present feature detailed montages of layered memories just aching to be matched sonically. The second fire scene (the Buxton fire) is much more powerful than the opening fire sequence, but overall, the film's LFE is underwhelming. Further, the montages described above aren't as immersive or detailed as the on-screen imagery.
In the end, while it's a little quiet and doesn't shake the house, this is a quality audio track, one that is much more dynamic, discrete, and immersive than the original cinema release or the 2000 DVD. Sadly, there seems to be less LFE punch and a few missed opportunities to make the soundtrack equal the well-preserved HD picture.
As a Special Features package, 'Frequency' time-travels back to 2000, porting over all of the content from its original Platinum Series DVD with the exception of the DVD-ROM materials [Script to Screen featuring Dynamic Index; Original Web Site; 'Lord of the Rings' Web Browser, Wall Paper, and Screen Saver; and the Fully-Playable Demo of Sierra Studios "Ground Control" Game.] The only other differences, noted below, include a couple Play All buttons (one missing; one is new) and some different audio options.
'Frequency' is a largely overlooked film, one that doesn't always work logically, or stand up against classics in the difficult time travel subgenre. However, it's very well made and the performances are first-rate. As a Blu-ray, it has an excellent catalog transfer and an adequate 7.1 soundtrack (an improvement over the original 5.1, but sometimes underwhelming). The Special Features are all recycled, but the featurettes and isolated music score tracks are fun. If you're already a fan, go ahead and pick up 'Frequency' (or wait until it hits the cheap bin, which shouldn't take long). For those who haven't seen the film, I would suggest a rental if possible first.