It is indicative of both the vast ambition and limited imagination behind “The Anomaly,” British one-man industry Noel Clarke’s shoestring sci-fi effort, that its marketing has brazenly lifted its tagline from “The Matrix.” “What is the anomaly?” ask the posters for this time-shuffling tale of a PTSD-afflicted soldier pursuing himself through multiple realities; it’s a question that might defeat even attentive viewers, given the film’s tangled conception and tortuously opaque execution. What “The Anomaly” is, however, is easier to say: a smug, risible and far-from-anomalous attempt to beat Hollywood at its own game, from a talent whose commendable reach continues to exceed his grasp. Released in U.K. theaters on July 4, this commercial non-starter should travel swiftly through time to ancillary outlets.
Since winning a Rising Star BAFTA in 2009, actor-writer-director-producer Clarke has accrued a level of respect in the British industry for his resilience and sheer rate of activity against any number of financial and demographic odds. That reputation was enough to secure “The Anomaly” a world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Creatively, however, Clarke’s third directorial effort exhibits no progress from 2010’s similarly overthought multi-perspective youth thriller “18.104.22.168.” He has the practical wherewithal to get complex genre projects off the ground, but not yet the formal chops to realize them in a non-derivative manner.
From its elaborate but incoherent premise to its clunkily staged time-freeze fight sequences, not one detail of “The Anomaly” hasn’t been borrowed from a better movie. That magpie opportunism would matter less if the film at least had barreling narrative momentum: Instead, it’s a chase story without defined stakes or objective, beginning with Clarke’s protagonist, Ryan, coming to consciousness in a pitch-black van interior, with no idea of where he is or has been. A terrified young boy (Art Parkinson) is in the van with him, though it’s not clear whether Ryan is his captor or his protector. Ryan himself has only nine minutes and 47 seconds to find out — the consistent length of time for which he can remain in a single dimension before being “reset” and whisked to another.
It none-too-clearly emerges that Ryan is the victim of mind-control experiments overseen by the mysterious psychologist Professor Langham (a wasted Brian Cox), whose absence of character motivation would appear to be part and parcel of his enigma. Langham’s icily handsome, perma-suited son Harkin (Ian Somerhalder, of “Lost” and “Vampire Diaries” fame) is the delegated villain, popping up wherever Ryan does to deliver sinister aphorisms and as much fistfighting as he can manage without unbuttoning his natty tweed waistcoat. Bafflingly, and yet somehow inevitably, Russian mobsters lurk behind it all — it’s this stubborn adherence to the genre checklist that thwarts any glimmer of uncanny intrigue in Simon Lewis’ script (written with “additional material” by Clarke).
Performances range from the po-faced to the blithely indifferent; whatever his qualities as a performer, Clarke doesn’t have the ability of Matt Damon in his “Bourne” vehicles to project Everyman charisma onto an otherwise blank slate.
Below-the-line contributions are uniformly cheap and cheerless, impressively stretching budgetary limitations without quite disguising them: If Somerhalder’s sharp tailoring looks synthetic, it’s because most of the film’s design elements do via David Katznelson’s flat, metallic lensing. The film’s futurism extends to a panoply of gaudy London skyscrapers digitally crowded around Renzo Piano’s Shard tower on the skyline — about as close as this sci-fi vision gets to a credible detail.