“The machine that is the American legal system is broken,” declares public defender Casi (John Boyega) at the beginning of Naked Singularity. Seeing the firsthand devastation that comes from an institution that punishes minorities and the poor, while ensuring they remain cogs that keep the machine running, the young lawyer is eager to beat the system at its own game.
Changing an establishment from the inside out is no easy task though. The idealistic Casi is shown frequently butting heads with a difficult judge (Linda Lavin) who shows no empathy for his clients, many of whom face extended stays in jail as they wait for a lawyer who speaks their language or are facing health issues that force their court dates to be postponed. However, Naked Singularity is not really interested in those who have been steamrolled by the train of injustice.
By time one gets to the end of the film, it is not even clear how Casi will revamp the fractured system. What is apparent though is that the film’s fight the power style message is merely a device to usher one into the film’s genre blending premise.
Adapting Sergio De La Pava’s novel A Naked Singularity, Chase Palmer’s feature length debut is a crime saga that is both a heist film and a science fiction tale. The central theft revolves around an impounded black Lincoln Navigator that is full of drugs. It just so happens that one of Casi’s former clients, the street-smart Lea (Olivia Cooke), works at the impound lot and has found herself entangled with a dangerous low-level criminal, Craig (Ed Skrein), who wants to get his hands on the car. As dangerous as Craig may be, it is his boss The Golem (Kyle Mooney), the fearsome head of a Jewish crime syndicate, that Lea needs to worry about.
Learning of Lea’s predicament, Casi and his cocaine sniffing colleague Dane (Bill Skarsgård) devise a plan to steal the drugs themselves. A scheme that is so perplexing in its design and feeble in its execution that it is a wonder how the men made it through law school in the first place. Which hits to the core problem of the film, few of its ideas feel fully formed.
The best heist films are the ones where the characters spend time mulling over the logistics of their plan especially when the stakes are high. Even when it inevitably goes wrong due to an unforeseen variable, there is a sense of excitement and tension in seeing how the key players use their wits to get out of the dire predicament. Palmer’s film lacks this tension as the stakes feel low for everyone involved. Casi is already on the brink of being disbarred when he agrees to participate in Dane’s plan, and Lea has grown tired of her dead-end job where her boss sexually harasses her daily.
What makes the absence of a true sense of danger even more glaring is that the film’s subplot involves the world collapsing in on itself.
According to Casi’s physicist pal Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), time is running out as the world is going through a major change that few have the knowledge or clarity to observe. It is the reason New York is increasingly plagued with random blackouts and why Casi is the only one to see that the clock outside the courthouse is flashing a temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. One would think that such a monumental event would add to the overall sense of urgency in the film, but the script by Palmer, who also wrote the screenplay for the horror hit It, and David Matthews routinely treat it as an afterthought. It is merely one of the many interesting ideas in the film, like the brief romantic arc between Casi and Lea, that the film has no desire to explore.
Given the lack of desire to engage in any of its ideas in a meaningful way, the film is forced to rely heavily on its brand of humour, off-beat characters and moments of visual flare, such as the way The Golem is introduced, to keep audiences engaged. Unfortunately, Naked Singularity’s fun moments are not enough to sustain the film on its own. Despite the ridiculously talented cast–Skarsgård and Skrein are especially entertaining in their respective supporting roles–there is very little for Boyega and Cooke to work with. The fact that the film cannot even make Boyega wielding a samurai sword feel badass is telling.
Naked Singularity may wear the robe of a heist film with a message, but its collection of half-formed ideas shows just how bare it is underneath.