Crimes of the Future (2022)
Neon/rated R/107 minutes
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Produced by Robert Lantos
Starring Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Don McKellar and Wilket Bungué
Cinematography by Douglas Koch, edited by Christopher Donaldson with music by Howard Shore
Opens in limited theatrical release on June 3 courtesy of Neon
One issue that comes with being a filmmaker whose name is shorthand for a specific kind of film or television show, is that even your entirely solid variation on your genuine article threatens to come off as comparatively passe or not that different than what’s come before. That goes double for filmmakers who venture outside of their comfort zone and then return to their favorite sandbox, as often the film in question can seem more about recapturing former glories than pushing the boundaries. Crimes of the Future, which David Cronenberg initially wrote two decades ago, marks his unofficial return to so-called “body horror.” Like any recent/future Tim Burton fantasy, a Cronenberg film of this nature must deal with past-tense glories and multiple decades’ worth of films made by filmmakers who grew up in his shadow.
The film, opening in limited release this weekend, flirts with that conundrum but skates by on an unusual technicality. It’s a skin-crawling sci-fi thriller that is horrifying precisely because it’s not treated as a horror flick. It’s not particularly mysterious and there is next-to-no urgency in its crime-meets-art plot. If anything, the bleak but often morbidly funny picture is a skewed commentary from the master himself taking stock of his generational influence and, not unlike Steven Spielberg at the end of Ready Player One, finding it wanting. Beyond its metatextual value, it’s a grimy, low-key and often face-value romp anchored by two moody performances (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux) and elevated by an uncommonly pulpy and stylized performance courtesy of Kristen Stewart. The movie gains an extra shot in the ass whenever she pops up.
She’s one of a handful of supporting players (alongside, offhand, Scott Speedman and Wilket Bungué) in this claustrophobic and small-scale indie flick, as an overexcited assistant with “the National Organ Registry.” Along with, uh… cough-looking respectfully-cough… she plays the role with an unusual vocal titter, sometimes coming off not unlike Keifer Sutherland in Dark City. It’s an almost cartoonish character in an otherwise close-to-the-vest movie, and I mean that as a compliment as it’s 100% entertaining. Beyond Stewart, everyone else does what’s expected for this unsurprisingly grounded (as befitting the budget and scope) drama. The core hook, a world where humans can block out pain and thus choose to undergo selective and often outrageous self-surgeries, supplies most of the razzle-dazzle. If the film has a “fatal” flaw, it’s that its subtext is more interesting than its text.
The film presents a future world, one represented by in dank and dark interiors, pitch-black shadows and hushed whispers, where (as the tagline says) “surgery is the new sex.” The film’s centering its narrative on a tortured (in more ways than one) older male artist can’t help but make everything quasi-autobiographical or confessional, but the film’s surface-level storytelling is just that. There’s a major moral dilemma involving questions of consent when it comes to post-mortem performance art, and a slow-building subplot concerning the proverbial next phase of human evolution (no spoilers, but it concerns how humans might adapt to a planet ravaged by trash). But otherwise, it’s a slow, stationary piece of needlessly quiet indie fantasy that mostly rests its laurels on its high concept and the expected artisanship of an “accept no substitutes” icon.
However, if Cronenberg playing in a sandbox that he helped define for an entire generation is enough, then you’ll get what you came for with Crimes of the Future. The film’s core gimmick, that the characters treat its horrific imagery as another day at the office, also neuters the emotional impact of its most grotesque images. Simply put, when you know the parties aren’t in pain, it lessens our empathetic agony. There are a few interesting ideas over its 107-minute runtime, including the bemusing notion of an “inner beauty pageant,” and again I got a kick out of Stewart’s against-type performance. If Crimes of the Future doesn’t quite compare the filmmaker’s earlier modern classics, well, I honestly don’t expect Cameron Crowe to waltz out onto a set and give us another Almost Famous either.