This film uses many sudden flashes to other scenes to connect information and events, making it difficult to give a single, clean chronology of events.
"Ten years ago", a young boy named Nick Gant is walking nervously through a motel, led by his father(Joel Gretsch). They pass a maid and after a glance at her wristwatch, hurriedly enter a room. Nick's father tells him that one day a girl will give him a flower and that he needs to help her, explaining "help her, help us all." Nick clearly doesn't understand, but his father just apologizes, and says "I always said you were special, turns out I was right." He hugs Nick and then telekinetically shoves him through the wall just before a team of agents (led by the maid) burst in and subdues him while Nick watches. The head agent, Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) enters, and a concussive force rips through the room, resulting in the dad's body flying out. Carver emerges, saying, "What a waste," and orders the body to be packaged for dissection.
During the opening credits, we get a crash course in the history of the world, narrated by Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning). In 1945, Hitler and his Nazis were using experiments on people who were born with special abilities to create an ultra-powerful army. However, the war ending didn't put a stop to it. Other countries, fueled by the Cold War, set up their own branches, or Divisions, to investigate and weaponize psychic abilities. Types of powers: Watchers are able to see the future in quick flashes and scenes. (This is literally a visual skill, which is shown to be a weakness). Movers can move objects and people with their minds. Pushers can "push" people into believing that certain things are or aren't true (like hypnosis). Eye contact is required.
The following are only quickly mentioned at this point, but explained by demonstration later in the film: Bleeders emit high-pitched sonic screams that destroy their targets (glass, internal organs...)
Stitches can disassemble or reassemble any damaged tissue. Sniffs can take any object and get a history of where it's been and who has touched it.
Wipers can erase controlled amounts of memory.
Shifters make objects appear to be something else, retaining approximate dimensions.
Shadows, people whose ability is basically to block the effectiveness of other clairvoyants (the Sniffers, mainly).
Cassie is a Watcher, and although she can know the future, she says that the only thing to know for sure about it is that it's always changing, and can change just by knowing it.
"Today", in a government facility somewhere, we see a girl (Camilla Belle) being injected with some substance while Carver, now a little gray around the bald spots, looks on worriedly. We see a woman in a patient's gown being led down a hallway from behind, and watch as she drops a glass marble, which goes rolling through the facility, bouncing off walls and closing doors on its way to somewhere. The girl seemingly dies on the table, but before she can be disconnected, her heart starts again and she is soon moving fast, breaking out of the facility while Carver stares in awe. He shouts at "Kira" to stop, but she naturally doesn't listen. She evades various security measures, interspersed with images of the marble rolling and bouncing at precise angles off of doors and walls. Kira reaches an exit, whose automatically-shutting door is just barely held open by the dropped marble rolling into place at precisely the right moment, and escapes while Carver and his Mover henchman Victor (Neil Jackson) discuss the fact that Kira is the first to survive the injection and that they need to get her back pronto, leading Carver to order all Watchers and Sniffers in the country to full alert.
"Two days later", we see the now fully-grown Nick (Chris Evans) waking up in his Hong Kong apartment. After some finger-flexing and moving-practice, he practices making a trio of dice land the way he wants them to. Satisfied, he heads down to the park and does a little betting, but after losing a set of rolls and just barely not making the last die turn properly, he has to flee (with a now-bloody nose) from the men to whom he now owes six thousand dollars.
Nick is about to enter his apartment when two Sniffer agents from Division, Mack (Corey Stoll) and Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), show up and threaten their way into the room (though they arrogantly tell him that "if they wanted him, he would be in the back of a van by now"). From them we learn that many Americans with powers have expatriated to Hong Kong to avoid Division. We are also introduced to the true power of Sniffers as they tell him they tracked him from a 10-year-old toothbrush, and begin to casually go through his apartment touching and smelling things to see where he's been and if he's seen "the girl" they are looking for. After finding that he hasn't, they warn him not to do anything stupid like trying to run from them. He contemplates the guns in his clothing drawer, but hides them instead of using them, and the two agents leave. Nick starts gathering stuff up to flee when the phone rings. He answers it and is told to "let me in, and put down the gun", just as a knock sounds on the door. He opens it, gun drawn, and sees Cassie, who B-lines for the chicken she knows is in the fridge and tells him about a case they need to find that could net them about six million dollars, which would get Nick out of his debts.
They move their conversation to a fish market near the docks to get something more than chicken to eat. Nick finds out that Cassie, a second-generation Watcher, draws what she sees in a sketchbook that used to belong to her mother (who is now captured by the Division). Cassie demonstrates some of the limits of her power: she knows that Nick is not a very good Mover ("because he doesn't practice"), but is surprised to learn that he can speak fluent Cantonese. She knows that division killed his Father as well, and eventually admits that there is not actually any money in the case she's spoken about. Nick tries to walk away from the situation, but is cut off by the arrival of the children of the Pop family (evidently an organized crime family comprised of those with powers, who know about the same case that Cassie is speaking of): another Watcher (Xiao Lu Li, credited as "Pop Girl") and her Bleeder brothers. After a lengthy chase through the market, the brothers begin to use their power to shatter tanks, with Cassie and Nick running through aisles just ahead of the line of breaking glass. The two are finally caught by the sound and fall to the ground, when Nick surprises himself by successfully Moving Cassie away from the danger zone. Pop Girl sees a vision of Kira sitting on a bench fading away, and stops her brothers from killing Nick, with the explanation that "if they kill him now, they lose the girl. He dies anyway." The Pops leave, with Nick bleeding from his ears on the floor of the market.
Kira wakes up on a boat not far from the docks, near a Chinese fisherman with long fingernails. She looks around and sees a mirror that has "4100" and "Nick" written on it in some kind of red paint. A lipstick container and a key are both in front of the mirror and she picks the lipstick up and writes "Nick" on the mirror, and she sees that both the writing and the color are the same, meaning that she wrote the note.
Later, somewhere on main island, Cassie is sketching a doorway and eventually "draws her way" to Nick. She heads there and finds Nick being looked over by a Stitch named Teresa (Maggie Siff), who makes lots of sneering comments about Cassie's mother's capture and Cassie's own comparative lack of talent. Key here is a sudden flash to the shot of the patient in the hallway of the Division hospital dropping the glass marble that freed Kira, implying that this was Cassie's mother, who is "the greatest Watcher Division has ever seen". Teresa painfully repairs Nick's back and warns them not to cross the Division before leaving. Cassie wakes Nick up, and gives him a flower she picked out of a vase in the lobby, which convinces him to help her (as he recalls his father's words). She then shows him her latest drawing.... her and Nick dead.
Meanwhile, Kira is walking down a sidewalk somewhere when Mack and Holden catch up to her. They grab her at gunpoint and start taking her back to Division headquarters. Kira starts trying to Push Mac as he turns in his seat to taunt her. Furious, he tells her to stop, and then tells Holden that she's complaining about needing to use the bathroom. The agents reluctantly stop at a restaurant, and while Holden gets a coffee Mack escorts Kira into the bathroom. She manages to make eye contact with him through the crack in the bathroom stall door and his reflection in the mirror, and Pushes him into believing that Holden killed his brother (who doesn't actually exist). Mack storms out of the bathroom and shoots Holden, scaring off the clientele of the shop. He realizes his mistake an heads back into the bathroom, where Kira overpowers him with well-trained fighting skills, steals the car keys, and heads back into the city on her own.
At night, we see Carver and Victor driving with Mac in the back seat, who is trying to explain himself and justify the killing while Carver tells him that he didn't have a brother ("I didn't?"). Carver says that Mac is off-team until he's capable of operating at full-strength and Mac asserts that he can do that now, as the trio walks through an alley. Carver asks if he would bet his life on that, and when his answer is yes, Pushes Mac into believing that his gun isn't loaded and that he should fire it into his mouth. "Put the gun in your mouth, pull the trigger." Carver and Victor continue their search, leaving Mack's body in the alley.
Meanwhile, Nick and Cassie are riding a taxi through the streets with Nick going through the book when he recognizes one of the drawings as the logo for a club he frequents. Cassie has drawn a shiny bead in front of it. They head to the club and find an ex-agent/Shifter there, Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis). We see him using his ability to perform card tricks for the girls inside. Nick and Cassie sit down and he gives the waitress a paper with a "100" printed on it (which he shifts into a 100 HKD bill)and she goes to get their order and keep the change. After some talk about their purpose, Hook tells them that there's a sniffer named Emily they can use and gives them an address. They also tell him about the bead, and he makes an earring look like Cassie's description, which they take to Emily.
They go to her just as she finishes up telling a client his wife is cheating on him with a guy with a big boat. Although reluctant to help, Emily (Ming-Na) takes the bead and shows them the identical bead she has been given: beads that broke off of Kira's bracelet in the restaurant restroom during her fight with Mack have been distributed to Sniffers across the country.
Emily Sniffs the bead and points them to the Kwun Tong Pier, where Kira is trying to get a ride by Pushing a non-English speaking couple to believe that she is their old friend. She hears Cassie and Nick and starts shooting at them, when Nick recognizes her as his ex-girlfriend, who he used to run cons with on Coney Island. She tells him she doesn't remember anything, and he suggests that she had her memory Wiped to make it harder for Division to track her with Watchers. She points out that her memories of Nick are intact, for some reason. As Nick and Kira argue (Kira is angry with Nick for not rescuing her from Division, while he claims he couldn't find her despite his best efforts), Cassie gets a look on her face and scribbles quickly, then pales. She pulls Nick aside and shows him that the addition of Kira has added another grave to the picture -- her mom's.
Nick isn't willing to part with her, though, and compromises by calling up an old friend named Pinky (Nate Mooney), a Shadow. They go to a hotel and get a room. Cassie draws herself holding Kira's shoe, and when she picks it up to examine it for real, finds a key taped to the inside. A piece of tape on the side covers the number "4100". Kira goes to take a shower and Cassie makes for a street vendor outside, claiming she's thirsty. Pinky smiles and steps out, catching the imminent mood when he sees Nick stealing glances through the not-quite-shut door, but it takes Kira pushing Nick into believing the bathroom's on fire to actually get him in there, at which point they being to kiss, etc.
Cassie encounters Pop girl outside, who taunts her, saying that the Shadow won't work on her for long, and that she already knows how Cassie will die. Cassie, trying to remain cool throughout this, steels herself to drink a bottle of green liquor as soon as Pop girl leaves. (Earlier she referenced her mother as having been famous for using alcohol to help her see the future better, and presumably this is an attempt to employ that same boost in clarity.)
Later, everyone else is in the room when Cassie shows up, thoroughly plastered and saying that they should just dump Kira, since she'll get them all killed. She falls into a chair and falls asleep, and everyone else leaves her that way until morning.
Cassie is woken suddenly by the feeling of Pop Girl tracking them down. The Pops are seen barging into the hotel room-- only to find it empty. On the streets below, Nick tells the others to go somewhere else while he tries to make a better future.... by killing Carver's Cassie follows him but on the way is stopped by Pop Girl, who threatens her and asks if she's seen her death yet, asking if she knows what the tiger she keeps drawing means. Cassie runs off just as Nick tracks Carver to a restaurant. He goes in with two mentally controlled guns but instead of being frightened or even surprised, Carver talks Nick down and asks how Kira is and if she's started bleeding guts yet, since apparently the drugs make everything in your system come out of your body without constant injections. The guns Nick is telekinetically holding on Carver and Victor start to waver, and Victor takes advantage and starts moving stuff of his own, resulting in a TK gunfight as Carver walks out and finds Cassie on the steps with her drawing pad. She averts her eyes to prevent him from pushing her, and he takes her pad and leafs through it while she quietly asks him not to "make her do anything to herself". He says he will not hurt her, but Cassie points out that if they kill Nick, they will lose Kira, which sends Carter back into the restaurant. Meanwhile, Nick and Victor have run out of bullets (thanks to TK shields) and Nick is trying a final charge when Victor grabs him and starts bouncing against the ceiling. Carter tells him to stop, and he drops Nick to the floor. Nick comes out after a while and a concerned Cassie tells him that he looks like shit.
He calls Emily and tells her about the key as they head back to the hotel. Back at the hotel, though, Kira is sick enough to be unable to hide it. Nick gets the key and after Emily and Hook arrive they find that the locker it belongs to is Shadowed more powerfully than anything they've ever felt. Cassie, realizing that she will be unable to draw something that is Shadowed, sketches the skyline from their hotel, which has a good view of downtown. One of the buildings is missing from her drawing... the one they need to go to. Nick asks Kira about the case, and she says that it contains a drug that can be used to enhance their powers. Unfortunately, they still have the problem of the Pop girl tracking their every move, or "intention". Realizing that the girl can see every time they make a decision to act or move, they need to not know what they are doing until they do it. The solution: Nick will write letters in red New Year's envelopes to each of the group, telling them only when they should be opened to receive instructions. He will then go to the Wiper who cleared Kira's memory, and have the memory of having written the letters erased. Thus, none of the group will know the plan until moments before each part is executed, and the Pop girl will be unable to track their decisions far in advance.
Nick quickly grabs a pen and some stuff to write on and starts writing the letters while Cassie works on sketching the exact proportions and shape of the case and the syringe containing the drug. Elsewhere, Pop Girl is sketching merrily while they talk, as her father and his "associates" do business in the background. She draws the same syringe that Cassie draws.
That night, Nick puts Kira in a cab with Pinky. She asks when she should open her envelope, and he says, "When you start to doubt the truth." She gets in the cab and, after being told by Cassie to get an umbrella since it'll rain, he and Pinky head to the docks where they find the old man who wiped Kira. The old man tells Nick that a woman paid for Kira's Wipe 5 years ago, but not for his. Nick pays the man to wipe the last two hours from his mind and to read a red envelope afterwards. He's clearly nervous about the procedure, and waits until exactly 7:35 to have the man do the procedure, when the others open their envelopes. As the Wipe occurs, we see Pop girl stop sketching, stunned. She tells her father that she has lost the connection, and he slaps her, telling her she has disgraced him.
Meanwhile, Carver and Victor are waiting, where Pinky shows up before them and hands over Kira, who is sick and functioning poorly. Pinky leaves and opens his envelope, and we hear him mutter that "he KNEW he wasn't getting paid yet".
Hook passes security posted at the base of the Shadowed building with Shifted credentials, and rides an elevator to the top floor, where an old Chinese woman points a gun at him. He tells her she has done well and that the job is over- presumably she was placed there by Kira to hide the case from Division, though Kira Wiped the memory of having set her in place.
Hook takes the case back to the room where Cassie and Emily are waiting, and makes an identically shaped plain red suitcase look like the case in question. Cassie takes the case and exits the room they have headquartered in.
On the boat, Nick wakes up in the same place Kira did, and reads his own red envelope note, which says simply, "Go home." He does and finds the case sitting on his bed. He goes to open it but is attacked from behind by Teresa, who renders him unable to move. He manages to see a gun underneath his bed and threatens her with it to release her hold on him. She reluctantly does. As soon as he's healed, though, the Bleeders show up and take the drug and the case back to their father, leaving Teresa bound. After they leave, Cassie finds Nick and has a small breakdown, saying that she can't draw anything but pictures of a Tiger, and that she doesn't want to die but can't figure out how to avoid it. He comforts her and tells her that she can just go in a straight line away from all this and everything will work out, so long as she doesn't make any decisions the Watchers can track -- go random directions without thinking about them. She leaves him, heading down into the subway and coming to an intersection. She turns around until she gets dizzy, stares at two signs, puts her hand over her eyes, does another spin, and runs...and we see Pop girl circle the sign in the direction she went in a drawing of the scene in her sketchbook. The Pop brothers return with the case right then and show their father what they've acquired -- a bottle of soy sauce that had been Shifted to look like the needle. Enraged, the father rallies the troops and they prepare to head out.
Back with Kira, we find her in a hotel room with Carver and Victor. She asks why they're doing this and Carver calmly replies that she volunteered for it before flipping her a badge that identifies her as an agent of the division. Carver states that she was undercover and he had been her partner for years, but when she volunteered to have the drug injected into her something went wrong and she flipped out, neutralizing (with her agency trained skills) anyone who tried to get in her way. Back with Cassie, she's still moving arbitrarily and eventually ends up in the attic of a Chinese restaurant. She turns around and sees a tiger logo on a stack of boxes in front of her and knows she's made a mistake. She turns around and sees Pop Girl smiling there with a gun pointed at Cassie. Suddenly, hands with long fingernails appear on either side of her head, and we watch her shocked and dazed expression as her memory is Wiped by the same old man who wiped Kira and Nick. The man tells Cassie that her mother is proud of her, which tells the audience that Cassie's mother is the one who paid for Kira's memory Wiping 5 years in advance, including that she shouldn't forget who Nick is. (Possibly to be in that building at the right time as well, though the envelop Nick gave him may have told him to follow Cassie somehow.) Cassie looks at the picture again and sees that Pop Girl has fallen unconciously in the same position as a girl in the sketchbook, with a tiger logo standing over her.
Meanwhile, we see Nick walking through a hallway as the conversation between him and Carver in the restaurant earlier discussing curing her is spliced in. When Nick enters the room, however, he finds Kira healthy and well-dressed, an agent: she tells him he has never been to Coney Island with her and that they didn't even meet until yesterday, and he is cuffed up and dumped into a trunk while being taken to the location of the case. The three agents head to the locker and Victor rips the door off, revealing the case within. Just as Carver takes it out, a huge group of Chinese gangsters in the world shows up, including the Pop boys and father. A huge fight breaks out between the three agents with powers and everybody else with guns, the highlights being Carver taking care of the bleeders, Kira Pushing the men to shoot at targets of her choice in perfect synchronization, and Victor blocking bullets and even laser sight points. Carver, Victor, and Nick (who has escaped from the trunk) take out the three bleeders between them. As Carver approaches Kira, she turns her Pushed battalion towards him, when Carver quickly yells to reminds her they are on the same side. He marvels at the extent of her powers under the influence of the booster drug. Nick comes running up the steps, but is deterred by the squad of guns pointed at him. He tells Kira that the memory of her being an agent is a Push, and that Carver is lying to her. He then grabs the case and the drug and threatens to inject himself. Carver tries to call his bluff, but Nick injects the drug and within seconds is choking and convulsing before lying still. Carver sighs and says, "What a waste." He turns and leaves with Kira, who looks doubtful for a moment, just as the sprinklers come on.
Some time later, someone is approaching Nick's body. The feet kick him and Cassie says, "I thought I told you to bring an umbrella." He looks up and sees her holding an umbrella over him to deflect the dripping water. Nick smiles weakly and replies that she said it was going to rain, but she shrugs and admits to getting things wrong sometimes. She helps him up and they head downstairs where they pick up the real case, which was in a dumpster just outside the building the whole time. Nick asks just what he did get injected with, and Cassie smiles and says, "9 Dragon soy sauce", prompting Nick to say, "That's gross." (Note: probably also fatal, in reality). Nick comments that they now have the one thing Division would do anything to get, giving them an advantage in the war against it.
Nick asks Cassie how long her mother has been planning all of this, to which Cassie replies "Probably since before I was born". By now we understand that Cassie's mother deliberately allowed herself to be captured to place herself inside the Division headquarters at precisely the right time to help Kira escape, and let everything else fall into place. The entire plan and plot of the story was foreseen by her, and maneuvered into being by her initial actions.
At that moment, Carver and Kira seen sitting on a plane headed for the U.S., Carver asleep. Kira looks worried, and is going through her purse when she finds the red envelope. "Open it when you begin to doubt the truth...". She opens it and there is a picture of a slightly younger Nick and Kira smiling at a camera-- with the Coney Island entrance in the background. On the photo are scrawled the words, "Kill him. See you soon. Nick." She stares at the photo in shock, and then her eyes narrow as she stares at Carver. We see him in the reflection on her eyes, and his own eyes open as she says:
"Put your gun in your mouth. Pull the trigger."