Young Manhattan public defender Casi (John Boyega) is battling the US criminal justice system machine. “Once you fall in, it’s almost impossible to get out,” he observes. After an encounter with a thorny judge (Linda Lavin), he discovers that the only way to win in this unfair system is to beat it at its own game. Judge Cymbeline doesn’t appreciate his passion and outspokenness; the young lawyer still mistakenly thinks the system is fair in the face of recovering addicts and minorities.
Casi’s frustration is matched by his former client Lea (an underused Olivia Cooke). Out of the justice system but struggling, she works at the NYPD tow pound, unable to find work with a criminal record. She becomes involved with the slimy drug dealer, Craig (a typecast Ed Skrein), who enlists her to help gain access to an impounded SUV containing millions of dollars’ worth of heroin. Lea believes she can start a new life with her cut of the deal.
When she is caught with drugs on her, she talks her way out of her conviction by disclosing the plot to buy the car and sell it to a local crime syndicate. When Casi realises that she’s not telling the full truth, he decides to get involved rather than report it to the authorities.
After being met with a six-month suspension, Casi and his cheeky colleague Dane (Bill Skarsgård), decide to take control of their life. Spurred on by the charismatic Dane, they decided to create their own plan to steal the cash.
A sub-plot that feels unexplored is Casi’s shut-in physicist neighbour Angus’ (Tim Blake Nelson) predictions that the world is ending. With New York going through periodic city-wide blackouts, Angus’ conspiracy theories that the gravitational pull of black holes is merely a quirk rather than a science fiction twist. If there are any metaphors in his ramblings about things with mass being worth less or the binding of the universe unravelling, audiences will have to dig deep to work it out.
Naked Singularity doesn’t know what it wants to be. It starts as a traditional courtroom drama about a country designed to make as many people fail as possible. Then it shifts into a conspiracy theory thriller, an on-screen text warning us that we only have 12 days until the collapse. But ultimately it ends up being an enjoyable, but not unique heist movie.
John Boyega is as reliable as always as the cocky and passionate young public defender. His post-Star Wars career has been filled with smart movies about moral and racial issues; he approaches this less weighty script with the same level of seriousness. Bill Skarsgård is having a wonderful time as Casi’s sidekick. He has the best lines and the best weapons, having a blast against Boyega’s more stern performance. Dane against Boyega feels cartoonish, even though his exaggerated performance is more suited to the narrative. You can’t help but wonder how fun Naked Singularity might have been if Boyega had taken the same approach and embraced the zany plot.
The script falls on the weight of the resource material. Director Chase Palmer compromises between the psychedelic otherworldliness of the novel and the moral commentary of getting stuck in the justice system. It spends too much time focusing on setting up the drug heist, which includes Jewish gangsters and the Mexican cartel. Not enough of Naked Singularity is spent exploring the characters and their motives. There is no emotional stake or agenda revealed that make you root for the trio.
Naked Singularity tries to hide its eccentricity behind a diet heist story. The script has watered down some of the nuances of the book, leaving behind a John Grisham meets Elmore Leonard story with very little uniqueness. The dialogue and the performances feel like they belong in another movie, perhaps one more closely associated with the original source material. Audiences will mourn the film that could have been, peering out through the mundanity of a heist caper.
Naked Singularity is available in US cinemas from August 6th and on VOD from August 13th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy