Naked Singularity is strange. The feature-length directorial debut of Chase Palmer, who wrote the screenplay for 2017’s smash It, and co-written by Palmer and David Matthews in an adaptation of the book “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava, Naked Singularity raises more questions than it answers. Like: Why? And also: How? And finally: What?
Most of this movie is a sort of legal thriller, but then it veers into heist territory, and there are also questions about spacetime, black holes, and parallel worlds hovering over the already needlessly convoluted plot. Again, I ask: Why? I suppose the mish-mash of genres is what attracted this cast, including John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård, Ed Skrein, and Tim Blake Nelson. But each of their characters is in a different movie: Boyega and Skarsgård are in a well-intentioned update on a John Grisham formula, Cooke and Skrein are in a grimy working-class thriller, and Nelson is the mysterious neighbor explaining heady concepts to the protagonist in a dense sci-fi film.
Maybe the book is better? I know what the smartest member of our Pajiba staff would say, but I cannot attest to this firsthand. Instead, I will confirm that watching Naked Singularity felt like being in the world’s longest freshman-philosophy seminar, stuck doing a group presentation when you’re the only sober student and everyone else is smashed. Your project mates are just droning on and on about, like, life, man, and the unfairness of it all, and you’re wondering why time has stopped and why the classroom door is locked. The incongruity of the film’s myriad elements means they never quite work together, no matter how much the narrative strains to accommodate them all. What Naked Singularity brings to mind is a movie like The Book of Henry: not truly bizarre so much as it is inexplicably misguided, and grasping for import and profundity with very little to back it up. Put another way: Naked Singularity is really quite boring, and spends more time sprinting away from its own interesting elements than exploring them.
Naked Singularity stars Boyega (doing an iffy accent) as Casi, a New York City public defender. From the film’s opening moments, Palmer establishes two iffy storytelling choices: Casi’s heavy-handed first-person narration (“I work for a machine that is the U.S. criminal justice system. Once you fall in, it is almost impossible to get out. That’s just the harsh reality of the machine. What if reality isn’t fixed? What if you can shape it?”) and a daily countdown to “the Collapse.” Is “the Collapse” ever really explained? Not quite, but we open 12 days out from it as Naked Singularity cycles through its players.
First up is good-hearted Casi, whose clients are nearly exclusively being screwed over by The System, personified by racist and rude opposing attorneys and dismissive Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin). Casi just wants to make a difference, but his sarcasm and brusqueness in court aren’t doing him any favors. His coworker Dane (Skarsgård) is more realistic about the state of the world (it’s bad!), but he mostly agrees with Casi’s rants about racism in the criminal justice system and the money-grubbing ways of Big Pharma. But the problem with Casi’s defense of the downtrodden, Dane says, is that “the only thing that can save them, you don’t have: money.”
Meanwhile, in another part of town, impound lot employee Lea (Cooke) is aggressively hit on by Craig (Skrein in full Kevin Federline mode). There is an SUV being held at the lot that Craig is trying to get his hands on before it reaches auction, and Lea makes the mistake of falling in bed with Craig and then getting blackmailed into his scheme. She knows Casi from her prior rough-and-tumble years, and the two have a connection that draws Casi into the whole deal with the Navigator, too.
If these two storylines existed alone—Casi and Dane being frustrated with their lives and their careers, and Lea trying to figure out what could possibly be in the SUV that makes it so valuable to Craig—then the way they eventually overlap could make for a twisty thriller like, say, The Lincoln Lawyer: something a little bit trashy, but pulled off effectively. Boyega feels miscast (he never brings much personality to Casi past bratty disenfranchisement), but Skarsgård, Cooke, and Skrein are all operating on a certain scuzzy baseline.
But then Naked Singularity has to go and add all this weird shit that contributes absolutely nothing to either its characterizations or its overall plot. Craig believes in a master race of lizard people (one of the film’s rare humorous moments is Cooke’s deadpan delivery of “I can’t believe I swiped right” after Lea learns of Craig’s ideology). Angus appears every so often to lecture Casi about “the Ripple” and how “The bindings of our universe are unraveling.” Palmer incorporates some effects like random shimmering lights, matter going fuzzy and bendy around Casi, dialogue that Casi says ends up scrawled as subway graffiti in places he’s never been, and temperature and time readings that are out of wack with reality. And Naked Singularity fails to dig into the real ramifications of what its different characters are planning. It’s all surface-level script stuff: “I don’t want to live my life looking at lost opportunities”; “You have money, or money has you”; “One set of laws for the slaves, one for the slavers”; and the frustratingly bland “Make it count,” a line that comes after we’re asked to accept yet another character alliance that the film presents without developing first.
Do I empathize slightly with what Naked Singularity is trying to say about how our world works, and what it takes to change it? Sure. But the film is such a mess in trying to back up that ideology, and is so clunky with its universe-bending elements, that even its core concept ends up irritating more than inspiring. “You’re familiar, I’m sure, with singularities?” Angus asks Casi, and no, I’m not, and Naked Singularity never made me want to be.
SPOILERS, SPOILERS, BE AWARE THERE ARE SPOILERS TO COME
Lea ends up being a sort of triple agent, agreeing to help Craig recover $15 million in Mexican cartel drugs from the impounded Navigator, and then coming clean to Casi about it and agreeing to help the cops catch Craig, and then eventually agreeing to help Casi and Dane steal the money for themselves. The film doesn’t reveal the final twist, though, until the film’s closing minutes. Until then, the film presents the plot as Lea being forced by Craig to help him, and then Casi and Dane coming up with a scheme by themselves. Lea and Casi also sleep together, for some reason? And Casi has a samurai sword to help center him because samurai used to protect the innocent and that’s what Casi wants to do, but ultimately he uses the sword is kill Craig for trying to kill Lea. All of this comes to pass because Angus insists that the universe is collapsing around them, and Dane ends up believing in that stuff too, so he convinces Casi that there are multiple parallel universes, and in this one, they should steal the money and start better lives. In the middle of their heist, “the Collapse” happens, which I think is supposed to be the city collapsing on itself in despair and despondency, but because Casi, Dane, and Lea steal the $15 million of drug money, and because Dane uses it to open up a one-man firm that he uses to defend the disenfranchised and oppressed from the evils of the American justice system, they somehow avoid the terrible ramifications of “the Collapse”? That all sounds sort of right. Oh, and Kyle Mooney has a practically split-second cameo as the Orthodox Jewish drug kingpin named the Golem, from whom Dane, Casi, and Lea steal the drug money. I don’t think he has any dialogue at all. At least that should please Dustin!
Naked Singularity opened in limited release on August 6, 2021. It expands to more theaters and is available for digital rental on August 13.
Image sources (in order of posting): Screen Media, Screen Media