JULY / AUG 2012: BY GINA DALFONZO
Frequency didn’t make a big splash in theaters when it was released but you could safely say it’s developed a cult following since then. It’s one of those films everyone kept telling me I absolutely had to watch, until I finally caved in and did. And once I did, I understood exactly why it’s so loved.
As an example of its genre, Frequency isn’t really anything extraordinary: the special effects are minimal, and the time-travel/parallel-universe aspect can be a little problematic. (Not that I’m the best judge—anything involving either of those things tends to make my brain hurt—but even I could spot some discrepancies.) But none of that seems to matter in the final analysis, because it isn’t just another sci-fi flick. It’s a film with heart, and it offers hope.
The movie begins in New York City in 1969, where we meet Frank Sullivan, a firefighter and a devoted family man who’s adored by his wife, Julia, and his young son, John. We then move forward to 1999, where John is now living on his own in the same house. His career as a policeman is going well but he’s having trouble with the “family” part. His girlfriend has walked out on him over problems that he admits are his fault but doesn’t think he can change. We soon learn that John lost his beloved father in a fire when he was only six, a loss he still struggles with. Until one night when he’s tinkering with his dad’s old ham radio—a night when there just happens to be unusual aurora borealis activity going on in the atmosphere. Radio signals are acting in strange and unpredictable ways. And suddenly, John hears a voice he never thought he’d hear again… a voice from thirty years ago. The voice of his long-lost father. The father-son bonding that ensues, movingly portrayed by Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, is a delight to watch. Caviezel said his performance was enriched by memories of his father’s recent illness, and how his father reminded him to have faith and not be afraid during that difficult time.
Naturally, John’s father back in 1969 has a pretty hard time at first believing he’s hearing his grown son contact him from the future. But John manages to warn Frank of the fire about to take his life, leading Frank, despite his lingering skepticism, to take a different route out of a burning building the next day. That night on the radio, a joyful Frank tells his son, “You’re the voice of an angel… reached right out of heaven and pulled my butt out of the fire.” Father and son talk eagerly far into the night, until John is in tears of exhaustion and happiness.
Of course, the two of them very soon learn the lesson so familiar to fans of sci-fi: you can’t change one thing in the past without accidentally changing a whole lot more. Suddenly dealing with two sets of memories in his mind —the old timeline where his father died and the new one where he lived—John is dismayed to realize that now his mother is dead. And then horrified to find that she was the victim of a notorious criminal known as the Nightingale Killer.
When John saved his father’s life, he also ensured that his mother, a nurse, would stay at work that night instead of coming home early. That meant she was able to save the life of a patient who, eventually, would go on to kill her and several other women. John and his father now have to work together, across the three decades separating them, to catch the man before he can carry out those killings.
Frequency has many elements in common with other sci-fi films. What sets it apart is its worldview and what it honors. The movie unabashedly celebrates loving families whose members would do anything to help and protect each other, and unsung heroes who risk their lives for people they’ve never met. As John’s character slowly and subtly changes for the better due to Frank coming back into his life, it demonstrates what a difference a good father can make. Unlike the bleak and gritty dystopias that make up so much of the modern sci-fi genre it offers a scenario where tragedies can be turned around and what has gone wrong can be set right.
It’s not a world where victory comes without a cost. At least one woman is murdered in the altered timeline after Frank, trying to save her, is knocked out by her attacker. Though his intentions were good and he risked his own life for her, the fact remains that because he survived the fire, she died. It’s a sobering reminder that even the noblest actions may have unintended consequences.
Despite that important reminder, the feel of the film is overwhelmingly hopeful and positive. To see this family’s tragedy undone is like getting a glimpse of a world we all long for, knowingly or not—a world where, one day, every tear will be wiped away. This is what stays with us long after we’ve finally given up wondering how John could remember both timelines at once or exactly how the climactic scene worked. In this particular sci-fi universe, there’s a sense of things being directed by a benevolent and loving hand, and Frequency shows the beauty of that vision. ■