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Déjà vu stars actor Denzel Washington as an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent assigned to investigate a ferry explosion in New Orleans, Louisiana. The movie starts off in the present and then shifts back in time to solve the crime.
As the movie opens, there’s a ferry being boarded by lots of military personnel and their families. It’s a beautiful, sunny day and the passengers on the ferry are having a joyful celebration. Below deck, one of the ferry’s crew members is on patrol and hears a radio playing in one of the vehicles on the ferry. The crew member moves closer to investigate and sees no one in the passenger seat of the truck. The crew member takes a look at the back of the vehicle and sees no license plate. Finally, the crew member takes a look in the back seat and sees a suspicious device…just before it explodes and takes the ferry down killing 543 people at 10:50 a.m.
ATF Agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is called to the scene to investigate (along with dozens of other personnel). The crime scene is completely chaotic. Family members are clamoring for information on their loved ones and the press is eager to get a story. In the midst of the crisis, the local police are trying to prevent public panic so they refuse to classify the ferry explosion as intentional or “terrorism”.
While other agents are doing damage control with the press, Carlin takes samples of debris which have washed up on the river banks and surveys the local bridge. Carlin finds residue on the bridge which indicates the ferry incident was not an accident - but sabotage. Carlin shares this information with Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer).
Agent Pryzwarra introduces Agent Carlin to members of Pryzwarra’s team. In the process, Agent Carlin discovers his partner, Larry Minuti (Matt Craven), has been killed (important later). Agent Carlin leaves the room in order to absorb the tragic news alone for a few minutes and Agent Pryzwarra talks to his team about joining forces with Agent Carlin to solve the ferryboat crime. It seems working together will be beneficial for both sides: Agent Carlin is an experienced agent, intelligent and able to analyze crime scenes quickly (important later) and Agent Pryzwarra’s team needs an agent with Carlin’s skills.
Agent Pryzwarra is the Head of a Special Technology Task Force and has some pretty unique tools to solve the ferry bombing. Pryzwarra and his team control a device called “Snow White”. Snow White takes images from multiple satellites and combines them. In addition, Snow White allows a person to view images and track the body heat of subjects which helps recreate crimes scenes (important later). However, Snow White has a few flaws when it comes to tracking suspects. First, suspects can only be viewed within a certain radius. Consequently, if a suspect is fleeing in a car, Snow White can lose track of a suspect. (In order to remedy this, the tech team has special headgear rigged in a Hummer which allows suspects to be pursued in high-speed chase. (There’s an AWESOME chase scene where Carlin wears the head gear/eyewear and Snow White team members see a suspect using Carlin’s eyes).
In addition, Snow White will allow certain events to be viewed only once (this is why it’s important for the agent to be experienced, able to analyze scenes quickly and tell “what’s changed or what’s different” since the last time the scene was viewed). Agent Pryzwarra talks to his team and the team decides to join forces with Carlin…
In the meantime, Agent Carlin receives a call while working the ferry case. It turns out a woman’s body has washed up on the riverbanks and the body needs to be viewed at the morgue. An assistant informs Carlin the message about the woman’s body “came in at 10:40 a.m.”. Carlin corrects the assistant by saying “you meant 11:40 a.m.”. The assistant repeats 10:40 a.m. (10 minutes BEFORE the ferry exploded). Intrigued, Carlin goes to the morgue to see what he can find.
Carlin visits the morgue and finds the body of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). Claire’s body has been badly bruised and mutilated (she’s missing fingers from one hand). Examination under an ultraviolet light reveals Claire’s mouth has been duct-taped and the residue on Claire’s body matches the residue of the ferry crime scene. In short, if Carlin finds Claire’s killer, Carlin will find the person responsible for the ferry explosion.
Carlin visits Claire’s father and learns Claire was supposed to pick her father up from the airport. Worried when Claire didn’t appear, Claire’s dad leaves a message on Claire’s answering machine along with other friends (important later). Carlin extends his condolences to Claire’s father but Claire’s dad goes an extra step: he gives Carlin pictures of Claire laughing and filled with life saying “I know how these things go” (basically cops have too many cases to care about one individual but if Carlin sees Claire alive and vibrant…maybe he’ll care enough about Claire and be motivated to solve Claire’s murder). Carlin takes the photos of Claire and leaves.
THE TIME TRAVEL BEGINS
It is against this backdrop the story takes off. Carlin goes to work with Pryzwarra’s technology team: Denny (Adam Goldberg), Gunnars (Elden Henson), and Shanti (Erica Alexander). Denny, Gunnars, and Shanti control the audiovisual images of the crime scene. Carlin recreates the crime scene using Snow White and views what’s believed to be taped footage of Claire at a local bar and in her home.
It turns out Pryzwarra has not been completely honest with Carlin. While observing Claire in her home via the Snow White system, Carlin sees Claire write a note stating “she feels like she’s being watched”. Carlin asks Pryzwarra if subjects KNOW they’re being watched. Pryzwarra says “no”. Carlin doesn’t believe Pryzwarra. One day Carlin sneaks a laser pen into the Snow White room and aims the laser at the video monitors and Claire freaks out because Claire can see the laser! It turns out Carlin isn’t viewing a tape-recording of Claire (as Pryzwarra told him). Carlin was viewing the ACTUAL past and the Snow White Team has found a way to REVISIT AND INTERACT with the past. (That’s why the project is such a secret).
Along the way, Denny, Gunnars and Shanti explain the science behind “Snow White” (folding time onto itself…anyone remember the book A Wrinkle in Time?). In addition, there’s a discussion of ethics (i.e. should time travel be done if a negative outcome can be expected and whether Shanti’s male colleagues have any scientific reason for watching a female subject in the shower…humorous scene)! Also, Carlin discovers Shanti’s statements about time travel being like “pond waves” is true if one event in the past is changed, it can impact other events...
Eventually, Carlin finds Claire’s killer Carroll Oerstadt using Snow White’s technology. Oerstadt is a seriously disturbed, anti-social individual who administers his own form of justice for the world. Oerstadt had always wanted to be a member of the military but failed psychological exams. Consequently, Oerstadt became embittered and targeted the military (thus the decision to bomb the ferry filled with military personnel and their families in retaliation).
Claire turns out to be an innocent victim in this ordeal Oerstadt needed a vehicle to place bombs aboard the ferry. Since Claire had an advertisement in the local paper regarding her truck for sale (Claire had broken up with her boyfriend and the boyfriend was forcing Claire to sell the truck and give him half the sale price), Oerstadt selected Claire as a target (to steal her truck). Claire was bound, gagged, beaten, and her fingers were severed when she fought Oerstadt after the truck-jacking.
In addition, Carlin discovers Claire was not Oerstadt’s original target. Carlin’s partner Minuti - was Oerstadt’s original source for a vehicle. Minuti confronts Oerstadt in an effort to stop Oerstadt’s bombing plans and gets killed. (The movie shows two different versions of how Minuti gets killed which reinforces Shanti’s “pond theory” of how changing one aspect of the past can impact other events). The team learns Minuti was supposed to die. Intervening with the help of Snow White did not prevents Minuti’s death it simply changed HOW Minuti died…
Knowing how and why Claire gets killed motivates Carlin to use Snow White for a time travel mission (unauthorized by superiors). As Carlin notes, he’s “always caught criminals after the crime…it’s time to prevent a crime BEFORE it happens”. Carlin has been viewing pictures of Claire via Snow White, slowly falling in love with her and doesn’t want Claire to die. Carlin sees Claire as a good-natured woman who’s had her share of heartbreak (especially with her loser ex-boyfriend). With the help of a Snow White team member, Carlin climbs into a device which transports him back several hours BEFORE Claire is killed. Carlin is supposed to find Claire and stop Oerstadt.
Carlin travels back in time…and starts having a seizure of some sort when his body arrives in the past. Someone (most likely the Snow White team member who sent Carlin through) thought ahead of time to paint the words “revive me” on Carlin’s chest. Medical attention is summoned for Carlin and emergency personnel jumpstart Carlin’s heart with paddles.
Carlin recuperates a few hours, sneaks out of the hospital and makes his way to Oerstadt’s secluded location. Once there, Carlin sees Oerstadt has Claire as his hostage and is dousing Claire with gasoline. Carlin engages Oerstadt in battle and Oerstadt flees making his way to the ferry. Carlin goes over to help Claire who has a hood over her head. Claire scratches furiously at Carlin (thinking Carlin is Oerstadt). Carlin rescues Claire by telling Claire she “is safe” and they should leave Oerstadt’s hideout quickly - going to Claire’s place.
At Claire’s house, Claire plays along with Carlin at first (hiding her suspicions). Claire thinks it’s pretty odd that Carlin knew where Claire lived and Claire never told him. Carlin knew all about Claire via Snow White but couldn’t tell Claire or he’d be hauled off to the psych ward. Carlin begins to change clothes. Claire excuses herself under the pretense of getting some clean clothing and comes back with A HAND GUN! Carlin is trapped and begins to reveal a bit of the truth to get Claire to trust him. In addition, Claire’s answering machine kicks in (seen earlier). Since Carlin is telling the truth, he knows what the answering machine will say and tells Claire BEFORE the caller speaks. Claire hears the messages and knows Carlin is telling the truth.
Carlin and Claire make their way to the ferry. Carlin plans to confront Oerstadt while Claire finds a safe place to hide. Carlin kisses Claire and tells her things will be okay. Claire is about to leave when she sees Oerstadt and runs back to the ferry. The scene from the opening of the movie replays BUT THIS TIME THERE ARE CHANGES…
Carlin and Claire face off with Oerstadt (with military security standing by…).
Oerstadt gets killed and Carlin and Claire plunge the truck with the bomb into the water. The bombs detonates in the water but Claire survives this time around and swims to the surface to be greeted by Present time Carlin who says “you look very familiar…have I seen you some place before”? Carlin escorts Claire home safely.
ATF Agent Carlin was investigating a ferry bombing. Carlin discovers a beautiful woman named Claire Kuchever has been killed and her murder is linked to the bombing. Using experimental technology, Carlin is able to identify the woman’s killer, travel into the past and prevent the woman from being murdered. Carlin has discovered he has the power to change SOME of the past but it has an impact on the future. Although Carlin could not prevent his partner Minuti from dying, Claire Kuchever is saved and the present day Agent Carlin recognizes the woman and experiences déjà vu (an eerie feeling that they’ve met before).