Writer/Director Christopher MacBride's ('The Conspiracy') new film 'Flashback' suggests that one can live in multiple timelines, and watching this film would have you believe it to be true - it's a film that you're forgetting as you watch it. Despite a solid effort from MacBride and his lead star, Dylan O'Brien ('Love and Monsters'), 'Flashback' tries its hardest to tell a new loopy sci-fi thriller tale, yet forgets to be either intriguing or intelligible.
O'Brien stars as Fred Fitzell, a young man whose seemingly monotonous existence is given the shake-up of a lifetime as the belated effects of an experimental drug he took in high school kick in. Unsure if disturbing visions from his past are just visions anymore, an increasingly unsettled Fred reaches out to his old classmates (Emory Cohen, 'Lords of Chaos', and Keir Gilchrist, TV's 'Atypical') to investigate how the drug mercury (or "merc", for the syllabically challenged) may have played a role in the disappearance of his classmate Cindy (Maika Monroe, 'Villlains'), and caused a tear in the time-space continuum.
There's an admirable effort to mirror Fred's grip on what he perceives to be reality through editing, and the film by design often makes it difficult to discern what moment in time we are watching (no doubt aided by O'Brien's youthful appearance - more on that later). It's the kind of filmmaking that should spark excitement in the viewer, but in this case, it's the only thing 'Flashback' has to cling onto, and signals the lack of substance in the film's storytelling. The origins of the drug causing this cataclysmic tear in Fred's reality are never explained, even though the film teases at the larger universe it's apparently connected to. Similarly, a major revelation about the universe of human existence is hardly to be expected from this 97-minute B-thriller, but the lessons 'Flashback' does put forward - appreciating what one has, keeping loved ones close, etc - are so pedestrian that one wonders why all the fuss is even needed. This is especially disappointing as, for all the audience knows, Fred does these things anyway - the opening scene is literally Fred visiting his sick mother in the hospital. We learn so little about who Fred is, and his aftereffects of mercury kick in very early in the film, so it's unclear as to how this journey is meant to transform him. There are no stakes or incentives to care, and when combined with the intentionally confusing storytelling, MacBride ends up actively discouraging audience investment.
Despite the film's shortcomings, major props need to be given to O'Brien, who turns in a great performance no matter what disaster of a script he has thrown at him. O'Brien, who turned 30 last month, is one of few actors who can still convincingly play a teenager despite those years being far behind him - in fact, his performance as loveable nerd Stiles in TV's 'Teen Wolf' has made it forever jarring to see him in a suit, or a board meeting. I have a history of insisting that he has the star power and charisma for a lengthy and high-calibre film career, but the projects he picks consistently let him down. The exact same can also be said for his co-star, Maika Monroe. First poised to be a scream queen after the 2014 one-two punch of 'The Guest' and 'It Follows' (which she and O'Brien both together starred in), her less-than-stellar filmography since is nothing short of a disappointment. This very capable actress is given next to nothing to do in 'Flashback' either, and it's a shame; she's a cyberpunk variant of the manic pixie dream girl trope, complete with heavy eyeliner and blue hairstreaks. She's a concept, a lesson to be learned, rather than a character with dimension.
'Flashback' tries it's hardest to tell a new loopy sci-fi tale, but forgets to be either intriguing or intelligible.
'Flashback' decides in the third act that if it can't be compelling from a narrative standpoint, it'll try to be interesting visually, delving headfirst into strobe effects and trippy visuals, but by then it's too little too late. What's worse is that the repetitive nature of the final half-hour makes 'Flashback' feel like it could have ended at any point without impacting the story (I was convinced I was watching the film's climax, but upon checking the time, I realised I still had 40 minutes left). It all culminates in the cinematic equivalent of a shrug. When MacBride goes out of his way to obfuscate any moments of actual emotional depth by questioning the reality of everything we see, how is the audience meant to find meaning in the meaningless?
There's nothing more disappointing than seeing a film with a great premise completely fumble its execution. My initial assessment of 'Flashback' was that it was a flat-out bad film, but in all honesty, it's too boring to even associate strong emotions with. Perhaps, in another timeline, there's a version of this movie that works.