Part metaphysical thriller, part inquiry into scientific ethics and the morality of revenge, the sci-fi indie “Curvature” wants to get the heart racing and the mind bending simultaneously, but flatlines in both departments. Following a scientist who travels back in time to answer questions about her husband’s death —and perhaps arrange a consequential run-in with herself — the film recalls the budget-conscious likes of “Primer” and “Coherence,” which explored similar conceits on limited resources, but this pic hasn’t been thought through nearly as deeply or cleverly. Director Diego Hallivis and his screenwriter, Brian DeLeeuw, shoot for a comprehensive entertainment that packs a love story inside an action film inside a puzzle picture, but they stretch themselves perilously thin. Released to limited theaters and VOD simultaneously, “Curvature” seems destined to slip through the space-time continuum.
DeLeeuw’s script plays things frustratingly coy in the early going, hiding information about what’s happening in an effort to stoke a sense of disorientation. Vague lines like, “I will be processing what he did for the rest of my life,” eventually dissipate, and we discover that “he” is Wells (Noah Bean), a brilliant engineer, and “what he did” is commit suicide for reasons his wife Helen (Lyndsy Fonseca) cannot comprehend. Wells had been working on a top-secret time machine project with his partner, Tomas (Glenn Morshower), and his sudden death leaves Helen to wonder if she hadn’t noticed signs of trouble in their seemingly blissful domestic life. After falling asleep on the couch one night, she wakes up to find herself in different clothes and gets a phone call warning her of man in a black BMW who means her harm. The voice on the other end? Herself.
From there, “Curvature” whisks Helen on a metaphysical journey a week into the future, where she has to figure out what happened to her and her husband before nefarious government forces shut her down. Her “other” has warned her not to trust anyone but herself, but she nonetheless looks for help from her co-worker Alex (Zach Avery), who accompanies her to a clue-filled cabin in the woods, and Florence (Linda Hamilton), a lab technician who trained her in robotics. She’s stalked at every turn by Kraviz (Alex Lanipekun), a government agent, but she also has to answer questions about her own motives and what her “other” is trying to tell her to do. She’s learning about herself from herself as much as she is trying to solve a mystery.
Hallivis and DeLeeuw twist themselves up in the loops and paradoxes of time travel while trying to advance some heavy themes about scientists who aren’t mindful of the ethical implications of their discoveries. Yet talk about the terrible implications of changing the past is just talk: Beyond an exciting sequence where one Helen leads another Helen out of danger, the entire time-jump conceit is oddly unexplored. Helen and Alex mostly scramble to find out the unsurprising truth about Wells’ death while avoiding Kraviz, who’s roughly as effective in pursuit as Wile E. Coyote. The thriller aspect of “Curvature” is by far the least compelling, and it gets by far the most emphasis.
Genre specialist Fonseca, best known for her roles on TV shows like “Nikita” and “Agent Carter,” struggles with the formidable task of giving Helen’s revelations some emotional heft, and Hamilton’s name promises a presence that her minor role doesn’t deliver. Of the cast, only veteran character actor Morshower stands out as Wells’ erstwhile partner, suggesting the type of person who might once have been an idealist but rationalized his way into villainy. It stands to reason that the power to bend time is seductive enough to lead a once-ethical person astray. If “Curvature” bent more in that direction, too, it might have lived up to its title.
Tech credits are mostly solid, with Noah Rosenthal’s sleek lensing getting support from composer Adam Taylor, whose simple, synth-based score recalls the cool ambience of Steven Soderbergh favorite Cliff Martinez. The texture of the film is always more persuasive than its substance.