*. Narcopolis isn’t what I was expecting, but then I’m not sure what it is.
*. I’ll unpack that. Based on the DVD box I was expecting an SF neo-noir movie about a future state where drugs have been made legal, leading to all kinds of social rot and urban chaos. I was thinking something along the lines of a cross between Dredd and one of the Purge movies.
*. But thought that is the premise, nothing much is done with it. There is, of course, an evil corporation (called the Ambro Corporation here) that is hooking everyone on designer drugs, but drugs and drug crime don’t seem to be much more of a problem than they are today. Nor does our hero, the “Dreck” (future slang for a cop) Frank Grieves, go flying into action fighting criminal gangs on the mean streets of London. This isn’t really an action film.
*. Instead, it’s a time-travel movie, sort of along the lines of 12 Monkeys. It seems the Ambro Corporation is developing a drug that when injected transports you through time. Yes, it’s highly improbable (there isn’t any discussion, for example, about how you pick your landing spot), but something similar seems to have been the method used in La Jetée so we’ll let it slide.
*. What I can’t let slide is the fact that I couldn’t figure out what the hell Ambro was up to aside from the usual mad CEO claptrap (“Time — the most precious commodity. Who controls time, controls everything”), or what Frank’s role in all of this was, or what the rebel hacker underground (if there’s an evil corporation there’s always a rebel hacker underground) was up to. I’ve tried to find some explanation of the plot online but even waiving aside all spoiler alerts I wasn’t able to come up with much.
*. In the end, I think writer-director Justin Trefgarne just didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Maybe some important material was cut (Trefgarne says as much during the commentary), but even so it seems sketchy. Characters are introduced who would seem to be central to the plot in some way, but then they just sort of disappear or get killed without doing anything. Ask yourself this: if the parts of Eva Gray or Yuri Sidorov hadn’t been in the script, would it have made any difference? Of course the scenes with them in it would have been lost, but otherwise they don’t serve any necessary function.
*. Of course, you don’t expect a time-travel movie to wrap everything up perfectly. There’s that whole problem with paradoxes. But the end of Narcopolis is more mystifying than most. To take just one example: if the rebels have the technology to send hit squads back and forth anywhere and anytime just by use of that watch device Eva has, then haven’t they won? Who can stop them doing whatever they want? If they control time, they control everything.
*. On the commentary track Trefgarne says he wanted to end on a note of ambiguity but I think it might be another example of not being sure of where he was going. I mean, none of these movies makes perfect sense, but this one is impenetrable.
*. How many movies of this ilk have we seen where the hero does a stern walk through a disco or dance club? That’s such an oddly enduring cliché.
*. I thought there was some potential here. Terfgarne does get a lot out of a limited budget. London in 2044, for example, is Doha, Qatar, not an effects shot. There’s a gritty atmosphere to the proceedings that’s a little different than the usual dystopic grime and which is well-suited to the guerilla-filmmaking style. And I really like that this is a time-travel movie where the hero is not in fact the time traveler but is rather the person encountering the time traveler and who doesn’t understand what’s going on. That’s a new wrinkle. Ask yourself how often time-travel movies play out like that.
*. But in the end it’s a movie that really wants the audience to care about a dramatic situation that isn’t very clear. This is the big problem with confusing movies: not that they’re hard to follow but that they frustrate our really caring about what’s going on.
This time-travelling drug movie sounds a lot like Synchronic, which I wasn’t mad about at all; I can see why the concept inspires cheap sci-fi, but Primer, Time-crimes and Coherence did it better…
Haven’t seen Synchronic yet. I should sit down and try to rank the best time-travel movies some day. That would be an interesting exercise. This isn’t bad, but I don’t think it would be that high on the list.