A future where all drugs are legal and dispensed in candy coloured confections. Sounds fantastic, right? Apparently not. Funded by Kickstarter, Justin Trefgarne’s debut feature Narcopolis (2014) posits such a future as a dour urban nightmare in which everyone looks miserable, except when they’re dancing to futuristic house music – which basically sounds like the same thing we have now. A billionaire corporate big wig – a cross between Richard Branson and Steve Jobs – Tod Ambro (James Callis) has cornered the market and is pushing his legal wares in schools, workplaces and through mass advertising through his omnipresent TV advertising and the rather naïf slogan ‘If you want Safe Play, Play Safe’.
We first see him as an old man in a breathlessly devotional interview in 2044, but something there are intruders in his corporate headquarters and before we know what’s what we’re back twenty years to the nearer future of 2024. Here Frank Grieves (Elliot Cowan) is a narco-cop whose role has been reduced to policing non- Ambro product, a corporate watchdog. Investigating a reported drug overdose, he finds a body shy half a head and with no DNA records in his files. Being an eighties style cop, Frank also needs a wife he’s separated from but still has feelings for, Angie (Molly Gaisford), and a son who he’s devoted to but doesn’t want to spend time with, Ben (Louis Trefgarne).
As his investigation progresses, he also comes across a mysterious young woman Eva (Elodie Yung) who seems fantastically able to run away while Frank isn’t paying attention. At the same time, Ellen Ambro (Cosima Shaw) standing proxy for her husband, is also interested in Frank’s investigation which has led him to search out Russian scientist Sidorov (Jonathan Pryce), who suffers from the same electro-allergy as Saul Goodman’s brother in Better Call Saul. If you’re getting a little confused, don’t worry, that might be the point. Before you know it we have time travel thrown into the mix and all bets are off. You cannot fault Trefgarne for his ambition but one is left wishing he’d leavened his obvious Blade Runner (1982) love with a little bit Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes into the Future (1985) humour. When it’s revealed as part of Frank’s back story that the reason he no longer partakes of drugs is that while off his face he accidentally shot his boss Nolan in the face (Robert Bathurst), the urge to laugh is stifled by the pompous seriousness of it all. Or perhaps not.
It may in fact be a result of its gloss that Narcopolis doesn’t quite gel. Its aspirations to high-end production values and the inventive use of urban cityscapes filmed from carefully selected futuristic angles are all very well, but it could have done with something a little looser, more punk, more grimy, more stoned. Take the casting of Jonathan Pryce which recalls Brazil (1985) and one longs for a bit of Terry Gilliam’s slapdash madness to liven up affairs and a little less emoting from a cast that never looks fully convinced of the story they are being told to tell. That said, it’s certainly refreshing to see domestic product that isn’t either a film about cockney gangsters or zombies (or, Lord help us, both) and technically the film is certainly an achievement in its slick look. But a film titled Narcopolis really should be more fun than Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty