Originally published at MovieJawn
The promotional artwork for Naked Singularity features John Boyega wielding a sword. It is very much not the movie such an image would invoke, but it makes sense. Between Attack the Block and The Force Awakens, it’s basically a fact of nature that John Boyega looks cooler than anyone else while holding a sword. His ability to look reverent to the danger of his weapon while also like he could kill thirty enemies with it, no sweat, is downright Mifunian. This dichotomy doesn’t just apply to his blade (or laser sword), it’s also at the center of much of Boyega’s work: he excels at playing both disarmingly non-threatening and streetwise enough to handle what comes his way.
But this is not an action picture, and the swordplay is minimal and forgettable. The thorough character work, however, is very much in play, and it applies Boyega’s dual nature to a story with urgent thematic aims. The execution of these aims is a bit too scattered to hit as hard as intended, but the easygoing nature of it all ensures an enjoyable viewing experience nonetheless.
Boyega plays Casi, a public defender with a strong ethical code and poor record in court. His suit is a messy and ill-fitting and his courtroom behavior lacks tact, but his idealism is unshakeable. While the system is happy to take a blind approach to justice, moving the less fortunate through the established framework with little regard to its effects, Casi is a results man. His job is to assist people in taking a plea, not to put the whole system on trial, but he just can’t help himself. The way he sees it, why throw somebody behind bars on a technicality when they’ve clearly worked to improve? But as we all know, the system protects itself, and doesn’t take kindly to loose cogs.
This is why Casi’s friend Dane (Bill Skarsgård) is a bit of a sell-out. The way he sees it, why worry about right and wrong in a world that gives such things so little consideration? Get paid and move on. Dane’s suits fit a little better, and his clients have a little more money. Dane dumps a lesser case on Casi involving a young woman named Lea (Olivia Cooke) who is currently being railroaded by courts. Enter an impounded car filled with heroin, a cartel who wants it, and some shady clerical work, and you’ve got yourself a chance to mount a heist to end all heists — using the very system that has all of our protagonists living on their heels.
There is employed a device in which in onscreen text counts down days until “the collapse.” This, in conjunction with small bits of visual/audio surrealism give Naked Singularity a sci-fi feel that it never quite capitalizes on, instead using these elements to lay further thematic groundwork regarding “breaking free from the system.” While it’s disappointing that the film never quite goes there, these sci-fi elements do add color to the proceedings. Absent them, I think the film would end up being too simplistic on a style level to hold attention as well as it currently does. It also helps to purchase the idea that Casi might just up and wield a sword at one point, which he does.
There’s a mix of wacky humor and serious drama that works more often than it doesn’t, but can occasionally feel like the two elements are working against one another rather than in concert. But when Naked Singularity nails this mixture, its alchemy feels effortless. There’s a minor plot line involving one of Casi’s clients who is about to be thrown behind bars despite having made incredible progress as an upstanding citizen. Played here by K. Todd Freeman (a personal fav), we see the purest and most effective mix of comedy and drama on display in the film. The character reads as a bit goofy, a bit clueless, but in two short scenes we see the most glaring flaws of our justice system writ large.
As a commentary on such things Naked Singularity is more effective than not, and has such a peppy energy and talented cast that it transcends its occasional goofiness. This isn’t a game changer — far from a Sorry to Bother You level of satire — but it doesn’t need to be. The material comes through, the performances are fun, and the entertainment value remains high throughout, even if it’s not as dynamic a film as it wants to be.
Directed by Chase Palmer
Written by Chase Palmer & David Matthews, based on the book by Sergio De La Pava
Starring John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård
Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes
In theaters August 6 and on demand August 13