Narcopolis
Shout Factory // Unrated // $19.99 // March 1, 2016
Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 28, 2016
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Graphical Version
Discussing Narcopolis, the feature debut of filmmaker Justin Trefgarne, is tricky, because natural impulse (for me anyway) is to put it in a category with a number of other small sci-fi pictures. Unfortunately, to actually name any of these other examples would probably constitute a spoiler.

The film follows a narcotic police officer in the year 2024 named Frank Grieves (Elliot Cowan). It's been a couple of years since the pharmaceutical company Ambro successfully lobbied to legalize drugs, creating safe versions of narcotics that people could take legally. Frank's job, therefore, is to bust black market narcotics dealers who traffic in non-Ambro high. One night, Frank investigates a homicide -- a man with half of his face missing, still sporting an unusually high body temperature after death, with indications of drug use. As he struggles to try and determine what kind of chemical could cause such a reaction, he starts to get pushback from his superior officers, especially when he discovers a mysterious woman, Eva (Elodie Yung) in a storage container. As Frank continues to push -- putting more pressure on an already-strained relationship with his wife (Molly Gaisford) and young son Ben (Louis Trefgarne) -- he starts to discover evidence that Ambro is up to something nobody could have possibly dreamed of.

Without naming those overly indicative examples, Narcopolis falls in line with a type of movie that has two paths in front of it: it can either acknowledge a certain aspect of its plot early on, one which will tell the viewer a great deal about where the story is going to go, or try and obscure it as long as possible. To varying degrees, the other films that come to mind opt for the former, and succeed mostly on having fun within that framework, or adding further complexities that help to distract from what could make the movie predictable. Narcopolis is the one example that takes the latter option, and unfortunately, it doesn't make a great case for that strategy. The result is a movie that is consistently hard to follow, leaving the viewer with the sensation that the writing is intentionally beating around a bush. Scene after scene can go by without something clear for the viewer to hold onto or follow, and by the time Trefgarne is ready to show his hand, the truth may be "too little, too late."

Stylistically, the film is both a success and a failure. Narcopolis is clearly a low-budget movie, and it's admirable that Trefgarne has managed to give the film a cohesive, industrial decay look that helps root the viewer in a specific but not unrecognizable future. On the other hand, the movie is oppressively ugly, bathed in sewer greens and browns, cold grays and blues, and frequently slathered in darkness. I recently watched a movie from 2002, and it felt like a strange and unusual experience to watch something set in a world that wasn't drained of color, with pale skin and nearly monochromatic backgrounds. Trefgarne also falls into the trap of adding unnecessary "futuristic" details to his universe that hardly make sense just to be different, such as barcode license plates and photo goggles that look less efficient than a smartphone.

The film's one trump card comes in the form of its leading man and its top-billed co-star, who manage to help propel the film through its various rough patches. Elliot Cowan navigates his character carefully, a cop overcoming his former addiction, looking to stay on the wagon while trying to figure out a mystery that powerful people don't want him to solve, and which takes a physical and mental toll on him the more details are revealed. As Frank reaches the end of his rope, Cowan finds a nice degree of insanity that never devolves into caricature while also coming off appropriately desperate. The bond between Cowan and his son feels authentic, giving the movie a much-needed element of emotional depth. Trefgarne is also lucky to have Jonathan Pryce, playing Yuri Sidorov, a scientist who Frank turns to for help. Even though Yuri's role in the story is limited, Pryce adds gravitas simply by showing up, providing a couple of crucial exposition scenes with the energy they need.

The Blu-ray
Narcopolis gets visually attractive cover art featuring Frank standing in the middle of an intersection in the city, surrounded by the bright lights of the skyline behind him. The only problem with the image is that it completely misrepresents the visual palette of the film, which is much uglier -- I'd much prefer to watch a movie set in the Blade Runner-esque future presented on the art. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is a cardboard slipcover with identical artwork surrounding it.

The Video and Audio
As I have already noted at length, I'm no fan of the intended look of Narcopolis. However, this 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation of it is immaculate, effectively capturing every nuance and detail of the movie's drab, ugly appearance. One of the areas in which I was most able to see the difference between DVD and Blu-ray in the early days was the clarity of scenes drenched in shadow and darkness. Much of Narcopolis takes place in these environments, and so the spectrum of varying blacks and grays on display here are impressive. Narcopolis also skirts a common issue with low-budget digital productions, which is that it looks flat and cheap, emphasizing detail in the wrong way. Trefgarne and DP Christopher Moon use shallow depth of field and extraordinary fine detail in close-up to give the movie a richness and focus that makes it feel like a bigger-budget production. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which also features all sorts of fun aural tricks during some of the flashbacks to Frank's period of addiction, to add little sci-fi touches to the universe that help make it feel more authentic, and in capturing the film's throbbing electronic score. A sequence in a nightclub is among the film's most impressive mixing moments. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
First up is an audio commentary by writer/director Justin Trefgarne. He talks about his concept for the universe and the story, tackling a science fiction film on a small budget and the various challenges they faced with the money they had and the time they had, working with his cast, and his intent behind various scenes and other details, including a couple of regrets.

"Narcopolis: Reflections on a Filmmaking Adventure" (16:40) is a fairly enjoyable making-of featurette which succeeds because it avoids recapping the story or the characters and focuses on reflections from the various people involved, including Trefgarne, Cowan, and Pryce. These are supported with quite a bit of B-roll from the making of the movie, showing greenscreen, locations, and the planning that went into the scenes. The one other video extra is a deleted scene (3:32), which honestly does a better job of clarifying Frank's actions during the climax than the finished film.

An original theatrical trailer for Narcopolis is also included.

Conclusion
Narcopolis isn't exactly ineffective; it's more like a grab bag of strong ideas, a bunch of good performances, and a bunch of material designed to obscure everything until Trefgarne is ready to reveal everything. As presented via Shout's impressive A/V, with a decent extras package to boot, Narcopolis musters enough positives to earn a rental.



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