Time is not inherently suspenseful. Its passage will not instantly inspire dread, nor does having a bead on what it will do sometime in the next few moments provide a potent nugget of apprehension. As the Master of all that is thrilling, Alfred Hitchcock, once said, “You’ve got to have characters one cares about and an audience in possession of information said individuals lack in order to create good old fashioned edge of your seat entertainment. Without that, you’re wasting your precious cinematic seconds.” Apparently, no one on the production of the new sci-fi slog Next got this particular memo. Instead, they honestly believe that a speculative gimmick, the ability to see two minutes into one’s future, will create a substantive level of tension. Instead, the results are tedious at best.

Our story centers on Cris Johnson (Nicholas Cage), a slightly psychic man who moonlights as a lounge act magician in Las Vegas. Using his unique talent to take a little of the house’s casino money, he’s a lonely man dealing rather unsuccessfully with his marginal mental skills. When the FBI learns that a rogue Russian nuke is planted in LA and destined to go off at any moment, they hope Johnson will volunteer his skills to help stave off a major disaster. They send no nonsense agent Callie Ferris (Juliann Moore) to persuade him. But our hero is hooked on a vision he had of a fetching young teacher named Elizabeth Cooper (Jessica Biel). She’s the only person he’s ever “seen” that allows his gift to venture further into the future than just a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, the US isn’t the only government after Johnson. The terrorists behind the bombing want him eliminated as well.

About as far from the actual Philip K. Dick short story (“The Golden Man”) that it was adapted from as possible, Next (new on DVD from Revolution Studios and Paramount Picture) is nominal action movie fodder at best. It’s a hodgepodge of popcorn movie conceits drained of all their snap, crackle and pop. The science fiction is specious, the action is anemic, and the potential romantic chemistry between stars Nicholas Cage and Jessica Biel is lethargic and uninspired. So gimmicky that carnival barkers would bow to its brazenness, and populated with one too many “it was only a dream/vision” cop outs, there is very little here to keep an audience interested, even a crowd anxious to see a favored fantasy gal engage in some psychic footsie with the dude who played Ghost Rider.

Director Lee Tamahori appears out of his league, and yet it’s hard to get a handle on where this New Zealand director actually belongs. His Once Were Warriors was excellent, but his flaccid follow-up Mulholland Falls was crime noir nonsense. As a maker of big budget statements, his Bond film Die Another Die stands favorably with other latter day entries, and yet his xXx: State of the Union was laugh out loud ludicrous. Presently, he seems stuck in stumblebum mode. Next is a clear case of cinematic butterfingers, a movie that messes up even the basic core elements of its ideas. A foot chase between Cage and Juliann Moore is hilarious, if only because both actors appear like middle school members of the JV track team. Likewise, a mid movie stunt set piece where various old fashioned frontier artifacts come careening down a mountainside sees our hero avoiding them in pure CGI chicanery.

It’s all endemic of Next’s flawed nature. This is the kind of movie that wastes the wonderful Peter Falk in a walk-on, allowing him a couple of pages of dialogue before dismissing him outright. It’s a narrative that convinces us that Cage has worked out a way to blend in with other gamblers at the casino (so as to earn his deceptive daily bread), only to have security and the FBI figure him out PDQ. Perhaps if our nuclear villains were more viable, we’d have something to hang our hopes on. But Thomas Kretschmann’s lead bad guy is an arrogant dope, easily fooled into dropping his guard and giving the game away. Naturally, he and his mixed ethnicity gang pay a steep price for such suggested smugness. But the Feds aren’t much better. Moore, who actually has expertise in playing this kind of part (remember Hannibal?), delivers her dialogue as if she’s forgotten every procedural mandate she learned at Quantico.

Yet it’s an overall sense of non-believability that eventually sinks Next. Because of the limited viability of Cage’s power, the fact that the future must directly involve him and occur within two minutes of his present status, we are trapped in some problematic plot points, especially after he states that, with said knowledge comes the ability to change what will happen. Huh? Tamahori tricks us time and time again, using the flash forward ruse to the point of exhaustion, and the resulting smash back into reality always feels hackneyed and disingenuous. As for our stars, Cage is on autopilot, avoiding his usual bag of quirk to try for something noble and burdened. It’s a stance that constantly breaks down. Biel is basically eye candy, given over to wistful shots of her golden girl grace dappled by a way-to-ample amount of sunlight. There is a captivating element to her persona, she teaches Native American children on local Southwestern reservations, but it’s an intrigue that goes unexplored.

All the DVD can teach us is the basics of working with F/X. There’s no insight into the production process, nor is there any mention of the many rewrites the script went through to be less like Dick (whose original tale centered on a clairvoyant mutant and an X-Men like undercurrent of racism) and more like your standard big screen blockbuster. The stars make a scant appearance, and the entire package feels flimsy and geared toward electronic press puffery. Since Next is so slight, however, it’s not unusual to see such a lack of context. What more can be said about a box office dud that did little at the local Cineplex except sink like a stone?

Perhaps if this film weren’t so leaden it wouldn’t have underperformed so. Maybe if a little more time had been taken with the screenplay and a little more money spent on the production things wouldn’t feel so confused and chintzy. It could be something in the casting which is awash in worthy performers yet with each one offering little in the way of characterization or caring. It’s clear, however, that Next’s biggest failing comes from its premise. Relying on time to provide both chills and thrills remains a filmmaking fool’s paradise. Suspense and that familiar adrenaline rush come with creativity, not clock crunching. Next fails to fully understand this, and ends up paying for it in the end.

RATING 4 / 10