Chase Palmer (screenwriter of 2017’s It) makes his directorial debut with Naked Singularity, an adaptation of the highly-acclaimed novel by Sergio De La Pava which blended a legal heist with touches of metaphysics. It’s a weird combination that could only exist on the big screen if done properly, if not perfectly. However, the way Palmer, who also pens the script with David Matthews, executes his events, you could make a strong case that the science elements need not be included at all.
John Boyega plays Casi, a New York defense attorney who believes that every person should be given a second chance. His client and friend Lea (Olivia Cooke), an employee at the police impound yard, gets involved with a runner, Craig (Ed Skrein), for the Mexican cartel who tries to bribe her into retrieving a car with $15 million worth of heroin inside. When Lea gets arrested, she asks Casi to help her cut a deal with the DEA officers so she can walk free and Craig will be none-the-wiser.
However, when Casi’s colleague, Dane (Bill Skarsgård), convinces him to join him in robbing the money for themselves, things get complicated (for the audience as well). Oh yeah, and there’s some seldom-talked-about subplot involving the collapse of the universe, which I’m still not sure ever happened.
De La Pava’s book isn’t concerned about physics as much as it is the problems in the American judicial system. And so Palmer also tries to capture that same spirit, only ever hinting at science fiction phenomenons – and I mean ever. The problem is, cinema is a visual medium, and when we’re promised something phenomenal and other-worldly, we want to see it. In literature, unmet expectations are much more tolerable, especially when things like prose and tone are more locked in and able to develop in a way that our expectations may even change several times.
With two different movies trying to coexist at once, Palmer’s tone never finds its footing. Esoteric ideas go unexplained through over-explaining, and then never become anything other than theoretical oddities.
There are signs elsewhere of the director’s unripe talents, such as loose editing and not knowing when to cut off a scene. We don’t need to hear the beginning and end of every conversation – or even most conversations. There’s enough here to show Palmer’s potential for envisioning framing and composition, but in terms of formulating that vision into a story on a macro level, the green filmmaker has a lot to learn. Fortunately, Naked Singularity doesn’t have the publicity behind it for his mistakes to become too overexposed.
Moving about as a proven procedural drama during its one-hour setup, framed with convoluted judicial system dynamics that only those in on the patois will fully understand, the film and its verbose, nearly-mumblecore banter have a lot to say about courtroom politics and ideas of an inherently flawed constitution (even though its four leads are all from countries outside of America).
The four main stars do surprisingly well considering the poor state of the film around them, which happens when you employ talented people. But also, Palmer seems to be quite competent at getting solid performances out of his actors. Boyega, Cooke, Skarsgård, and Skrein each add something special to his or her respective role. Boyega comes with the same comedic flair that he does in the Star Wars films, and his rapport with Skarsgård is the most frustratingly unfulfilled aspect of the movie.
Skrein does well as the almost-unrecognizable, untrustworthy creep who also never fully gets the chance to shine while Cooke continues to surprise by adding dimension to a character that probably wasn’t all there to begin with.
Much like its protagonist, Naked Singularity may have good intentions, but becomes futile in its efforts to actually say something meaningful. As much as it tries to connect to an audience who might relate, however, it always feels like there’s a barricade between us and what the movie is trying to say. Due to a filmmaker who just might understand the source material so much that he explains very little of the actual plot, tensions within the story are rendered lost and obscure, and scenarios unclear – unclear if we should care and who we should even be caring about.