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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.25.15] United Kingdom scifi thriller mystery

Writer/director Justin Trefgarne's debut feature Narcopolis is so well constructed in terms of both visual and sound design that it's genuinely frustrating to report that the entire enterprise is undone by the treatment given to three crucial elements: the central character, the story, and the script. I'm going to try to break down the reasons why this film doesn't work, but I must concede that the director should be congratulated for undertaking such an ambitious work, and for producing something which looks and sounds this impressive. While I cannot recommend this mess of a movie, I suspect Trefgarne is capable of interesting things.

The story introduces us to a future London, where recreation drugs are legal, and the population have become addicted en masse to legal drugs supplied by a sinister corporation. Following a slick, effects-laden opening sequence, we meet a tough cop named Greaves, who is struggling to re-connect with his wife and son while investigating a bizarre murder. Greaves, like most of the people in the film, is heavily addicted (in this case to old-fashioned street drugs, cocaine and heroin), suffering frequent hallucinations and blackouts as a result, suggesting that he isn't a terribly good policeman. When his investigation leads him to suspect police corruption, and a cover up initiated by said big corporation, our hero realises that drugs are bad (or something) and that he should be a better husband and father. There are numerous sub-plots, including something to do with a shady land deal and something else to do with time travel.

Greaves is played by Elliot Cowan, whose approach here is essentially straightforward and humourless. He frowns and squints his way through endless scenes of driving around, taking drugs, engaging in constipated expository dialogue with his duplicitous colleagues, and looking mildly distressed when confronted by his furious wife. The character is one big cliche: a troubled cop on the edge, unable to rely on anyone except for himself, and considering his alarming level of substance abuse, he is not exactly a reliable man. While Cowan fails to instil Greaves with much dimension, it's not really his fault; I doubt anyone could do better given the constraints imposed by a script which calls only for grunting lots of ripe, overworked dialogue, and occasional bouts of self-pity. The fundamental problem with the character is that we just don't care about him, and we're not really invested in his relationship with his son, which is so underdeveloped a side plot that it feels like an afterthought, hastily written in to provide us with something (anything!) to hold on to. Crucially, we don't care about the murder mystery either, as it feels like one fleeting element of an unnecessarily complex story involving a multitude of minor characters.

Greaves is investigating the murder of an unidentified man, and argues with his chief (a cocaine addicted creep with metal implants in his face), who is performing deals with the frosty wife of the CEO of the big corporation. She appears to be bribing a city councillor in order to buy some land for development. There is also a pathologist, who has discovered some startling information about the DNA of the murder victim, and so brings in an eccentric Russian scientist (a bewildered Jonathan Pryce, of all people) who lives in an abandoned factory full of '90s computers, and believes himself vulnerable to mobile phones, which will apparently make his brain melt. The lead character bounces between these various parties, while struggling to juggle family commitments. Along the way, he rescues a vulnerable young woman who may be connected to the murder, but who refuses to divulge any information. There is also a scene where Greaves visits a futuristic nightclub which plays aggrotech and serves 'smart drinks'. This reminded me of a scene in the film Freejack, and therefore earns a couple of points. During the second act, the time travel plot comes into play, and by this stage we're left reeling, not merely from how ill-fitting a development this feels in what is basically a police procedural thriller (albeit one dressed in futuristic clobber) but also by the sheer abundance of storylines, none of which really hook us in. If it sounds as though I'm describing Southland Tales on crack, then that's because I am, but unlike Southland Tales, Nacropolis doesn't have any jokes (or a musical number), it only has a sweaty, brooding heroin addict with the personality of a brick.

During the Q&A session after the film, the director explained that, following principle shooting, he rewrote the script and shot additional storylines to beef up the film and make it marketable. I was reminded of the Roger Corman rule for first time film-makers: keep it short, keep it simple, and bring the film in on time. This film took eighteen months to make, and somewhere along the line it feels as though Trefgarne's ambition has superseded his ability to maintain a hold on the story, so we're left with a series of set-pieces which feel oddly disconnected, amounting to less than the sum of their parts. Given the fact that the whole land deal thing is not really explained or expanded upon, and that the time travel plot is largely incomprehensible and feels faintly ludicrous, one can't help but consider that it might have been wise to remove these elements altogether. If we spent more time watching Greaves actually solve the murder, perhaps interviewing suspects and engaging in some detective work, he might appear less confused and alienated, developing into a character we could sympathise with. Similarly, had the story provided more than just lip-service to the father/son relationship, the 'twist' ending of the film would carry more weight, and we could forgive how obvious and mediocre it feels.

The script is remarkably plodding. The actors do a reasonable job of speaking such frankly duff lines as, "Maybe they've found a way to block the DNA code, to jam the signal?" and "I'm so frightened, it's just all the drugs!", but game performances do not distract from the pedestrian dialogue. The writer stretches the notion of world-building by inventing lots of cheap slang words which characters drop into conversation in a stilted, unnatural way, and many of the drug references sound like something out of a Chris Morris sketch. (I was reminded several times of Adam Buxton's brilliant spoof drug film Speeding on the Needlebliss, which I advise you watch on youtube.) So, while this kind of future-speak barely works in 80s/90s sci-fi of the Charles Band/Albert Pyun variety, here it honestly feels cheesy and redundant. I did enjoy the frequent nods to Blade Runner in the visual design of the cityscape, and in Greaves' discovery of a secret code literally written on the victim's DNA, but these moments only serve to raise a dry smile and remind us how flawless and influential a film is Blade Runner.

On the plus side, Narcopolis is expertly scored with a kind of grinding electro soundtrack which runs throughout and works to create an effective atmosphere, but again this is window dressing; it ought to have been used in a better film. Similarly, while the effects and little design touches are neat and impressive (particularly for a film which cost less than a million pounds) they attest only to the skill of the artists involved in crafting them, and at times actually serve to highlight the overall weakness of the narrative itself.

The most glaring flaw with Narcopolis is perhaps easily dismissed, for it forms the entire basis of the film, and only a killjoy would nitpick over it (so I'm going to). If all drugs were legalised, would this really result in mass addiction on the scale seen in the movie? I liked the idea of company representatives sent door-to-door to tempt children into forming a habit, handing out drugs in the form of sugary snacks (and I could buy that development within the context of the film) but experience tells us that counties which introduce legalisation often fare surprisingly well. That said, it has been remarked that if the UK were to legalise narcotics, we're all so miserable and self-destructive over here that we'd desperately consume them until we were all dead... Still, it doesn't feel plausible that everyone from the mayor of London to your average working Joe would obsessively pop pills and snort powder simply because they're legal and readily available. Perhaps I am an optimist.

I look forward to seeing what Trefgarne does next. He's clearly a talented director with a flair for visual design, and it's obvious that this film is a labour of love, but for all its clicks and whistles, it lacks emotional depth, interesting characters and an engaging story. I take no joy in my reaction to it, but then again, I took no joy in watching it either.

Recommended Release: Southland Tales

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ChrisRead (7 years ago) Reply

Fantastic review. Good to see an Albert Pyun reference. Trooper Deth has to go down the line and save some squids.


Yatima (6 years ago) Reply

Thank you so much for turning this appalling film I just accidentally watched into a hilarious, almost worthwhile hate viewing. Simon, this write up is as brilliant as the film was terrible. So, extremely brilliant indeed.

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