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Movies and quantum physics are, theoretically, a natural fit. And yet many screen stories based on the concept get so caught up in their time- and space-bending paradoxes that the mystery turns ploddingly prosaic, more frustrating than revelatory. Case in point: the sci-fi thriller Displacement, the first feature solo effort by writer-director Kenneth Mader.
Aiming ambitiously for an Inception-esque head trip, the filmmaker has crafted the tale of a grieving young woman caught up in timeslips that might have been triggered by her own research. His good-looking but less-than-involving film delivers moments of intrigue and jolts of eeriness, and those so inclined to parse the overlapping narrative folds might return to it for repeated viewings on digital platforms. Most viewers, though, will find the heart of the story buried in an overload of hyped-up yada-yada about light curves and particle pairs, chalkboards full of equations and dire pronouncements that “the probabilistic inertia is losing its integrity.”
As physics student Cassie Sinclair, Courtney Hope is a likable protagonist, resourceful and convincingly rattled by the quantum entanglement in which she finds herself. The film opens with her waking, fully clothed, in a bathtub full of ice. An enigmatic Post-it message awaits her, as does the bloodied body of her boyfriend, Brian (Christopher Backus), apparently murdered in their bed. And then everything is back to more or less normal on the domestic front, Cassie unpersuasively writing off her violent hallucinations to a bout of déjà vu.
From there, the loops within loops multiply rapidly. Sometimes Cassie’s mother (Susan Blakely) has already died of cancer; other times she’s alive and ailing with preternatural grace and warmth. Cassie’s waking life — or is it? — is continually interrupted by episodes of interrogation in a stark warehouse, where Dr. Miles (Sarah Douglas) urgently insists that the young woman’s physics thesis is the key to stopping an anomalous quantum event and changing a disastrous outcome.
The hope of changing an unwanted outcome is at the core of Mader’s screenplay, which taps into a universal well of regret with Cassie’s guilt over her mother’s final days. Trust is also central to Cassie’s ordeal, which calls into question the loyalties of her good friend Josh (Karan Oberoi), her former professor (Bruce Davison) and her brilliant but unsympathetic father (Lou Richards) while bringing a government conspiracy into the light, and tying it to the purported Philadelphia Experiment by the U.S. Navy in 1943. But as she bravely attempts to piece together past, present and future, the overlong movie’s leaps back and forth prove more tiring than exciting.
If scenes often beg for Mystery Science Theater 3000 quips, it’s by no means because the film is sci-fi shlock; impressively polished on its low budget and making good use of Southern California locations, it has an enigmatic undertow. But the time-travel convolutions of the feature, whose credits include a quantum physics consultant, clutter the drama rather than illuminating it. Had Mader focused on fewer plot strands, he might have found a more effective balance. Whatever metaphysical poetry Displacement could have held is lost amid its over-explained and underwhelming search for the “negation point.”
Production companies: Maderfilm in association with Illumina Productions, Sunset Production Studios and Z-Ville Productions
Distributor: Arcadia Releasing Group
Cast: Courtney Hope, Susan Blakely, Bruce Davison, Sarah Douglas, Christopher Backus, Karan Oberoi, Lou Richards
Director-screenwriter: Kenneth Mader
Producers: Zander Villayne, Kenneth Mader
Executive producers: Brent Courtney, Angela Crates, John Crates, Lori Cruz, Carol Faltis, Sarah Carson, Cecile Cinco, Richard Folwarski, Lionel Hubbard, Kenneth Mader
Director of photography: Bill McClelland
Art director: Tiffany Smith
Editor: Kenneth Mader
Composer: Bruce Chianese
Casting: J. Howard Sable