Roberto Rivera

The Frequency of Hope

05/20/16

Roberto Rivera

If you ask me “How many ‘Terminator’ movies are there?” my answer is “two”: the original 1984 film and “T2: Judgment Day.” The others, with the possible exception of “Terminator Salvation,” are abominations. They take the open, yet somewhat hopeful, ending of “T2” and grind it into dust.

For the same reason, there are only two “Alien” films, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” only ran five seasons.

So, learning that one of my favorite smallish movies, 2000’s “Frequency,” has been turned into a television show, starting this fall on the CW network has given me agita.

To help you understand my misgivings, let me tell you about the original. “Frequency,” directed by Gregory Hoblit and written by Toby Emmerich, tells the story of Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), a New York City fireman whose hobby is being a ham radio operator; his wife, Julia (a pre-“Lost” Elizabeth Mitchell); and their son, John (played as an adult by a pre-“Passion of the Christ” and “Person of Interest” James Caviezel). It’s October 10, 1969, the eve of the 1969 World Series, and when the folks in Bayside (Queens) aren’t talking about the Miracle Mets, they’re talking about the unusual appearance of the Aurora Borealis—the first time these heavenly lights have been visible over the city in ninety years.

The film then cuts to October 10, 1999. The Aurora is back, but not much else remains the same. Frank is dead, killed in the line of duty on October 12, 1969. John’s life is a mess. The woman who loves him has just left him and he’s drinking too much.

Just as his life hits bottom, John stumbles across his dad’s old ham radio. After hooking the radio up, John hears a familiar, yet out-of-place, voice. It’s his dad. Somehow, thanks to two Auroras exactly thirty years apart, father and son have been brought together again.

As soon as John realizes what’s happening, he immediately sets outs to undo the circumstances that cost him his dad. Naturally, Frank is skeptical. It’s only John’s knowledge of the outcome of the 1969 World Series that convinces Frank that the voice on the ham radio is on the level—ultimately changing what happened on October 12, 1969.

But, in saving his dad, John has not only changed his own past, he has cost other people their lives. The rest of “Frequency” is a better-than-average thriller in which father and son, armed only with a ham radio and knowledge of the 1969 Mets, try to undo the damage they’ve done.

The combination of baseball, the relationship between fathers and sons, and inexplicable reunions made comparisons with “Field of Dreams” almost inevitable. But the two films were different, not only in the stories they told, but also in the way they navigated the emotional and spiritual terrain they occupied.

Whereas in “Field of Dreams,” the father-son relationship was a source of conflict and regret, in “Frequency” the absence of a father was the source of pain and regret. The difference between John with and John without his dad was dramatic. And “Frequency” had a supernatural or miraculous element that “Field of Dreams” lacked. (The source of the voice that Ray heard in “Field of Dreams” was Ray himself.)

This sense of the miraculous is why “Frequency” really wasn’t science fiction, despite being labeled as such. In “Frequency,” we’re never really told “how” father and son are reunited. What we get are two sets of heavenly lights, exactly 30 years apart, and the meek inheriting the Earth (or at least winning the World Series). Events and forces beyond the Sullivans’ control, and our comprehension, have intervened to, as Catholic theologian Thomas Howard once put it, “restore the years the moths and locusts have eaten. . . .” “Miraculous” works for me.

This restoration gives “Frequency” a hopeful tone. Some people found it overly sentimental. But it stood out in a popular culture dominated by nihilism, with its belief in, as Thomas Hibbs of Boston College has written, “the underlying force as malevolent and punitive . . .” That is, if there’s an underlying force at all.

“Frequency” was a cinematic repudiation of that notion. It told us that whatever forces are at work definitely want what’s best for us. And, as a result, “Frequency” reminded me of why people dare to hope: because they believe that the past, notwithstanding its undeniable power, doesn’t have the final word.

As for the new CW show—well, I know that it’s not fair to judge a show based on trailers and press releases. But 10 seconds into the trailer, Frank Sullivan is described as a “bad man.” Not only that, he’s a Yankees fan! In Queens!

Seriously, I wonder if the remake can capture the sense of wonder and hopefulness that made the original so memorable. I also doubt if the story told so well in 118 minutes back in 2000 can be stretched out to cover multiple 800-plus minute seasons on television.

And besides, no one ever called the Yankees “meek.”

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