Having not yet read any opinions on the latest David Cronenberg treatise on the future of the body, sex, art, technology, and the ways in which the world will eventually find the means to blend them all, I’m going to guess that a lot of reviews of Crimes of the Future are going to say something about how the film is a continuation or combination of ideas the filmmaker has had before, which is mostly true. But the director of such stone-cold classics as The Fly, Videodrome, Crash, Naked Lunch, The Dead Zone, Scanners, Rabid, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and perhaps the movie that Crimes of the Future is the spiritual sequel to, 1999’s eXistenZ, isn’t often a fan of repeating himself to the degree he does with his latest work. His films have always celebrated the grotesque, but they are each equally compelling on a purely intellectual plane. He doesn’t just want to cover you in blood, guts and other forms of goo; he wants to explore the twisted reasons humans might celebrate pain, mutations, or the synthetic environment of his latest showcase.
Although I rarely begin any review with a criticism, I will say that my biggest issue with Crimes of the Future is that there’s very little within it that Cronenberg hasn’t covered before and better. The work is still highly fascinating, largely because of the actors. Still, the idea that the next stage of human evolution involves the seemingly spontaneous growth of new organs, which must be documented by the National Organ Registry, or that surgery no longer has to legally be performed by doctors and can take place virtually anywhere, even in the form of performance art, are just so freaky as concepts that we’re naturally drawn into this world just to see the distorted and perverse ways people embrace these new freedoms.
Viggo Mortensen is Saul Tenser, the performance artist at the center of the story and the person who occasionally, spontaneously grows strange organs that seem to make him feel quite ill. He’s turned their extraction into public spectacles and has become famous as a result. Working with his capable partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), Saul’s displays have caught the attention of Timlin (Kristen Stewart), an investigator with the aforementioned organ registry group, and her partner Wippet (Don McKellar), both of whom can’t seem to decide if they are more fans of his or oversight officers. But either way, they get front-row seats to each performance, and they seem equal parts mesmerized and terrified by the implications of Saul’s evolving body.
This being a Cronenberg film, it doesn’t shy away from giving us clear and graphic examples of surgery, hoses and other implements inserted into bodies, in a way that seems more concerned with titillation than repulsion. The rhetoric about this movie since its debut at Cannes has mentioned people passing out or walking out, neither of which seems like a legitimate response. Even for Cronenberg (or any other recent unblinking film featuring blood and guts), the graphic imagery on display in Crimes of the Future seems tame, and it’s certainly not shocking. At worst, it’s simply weird.
With the exception of some of his early work, Cronenberg working in a horror or science-fiction space has rarely been about scaring his audience. There is nothing pulse-pounding about Crimes of the Future; if anything, he’s commenting more on how much more celebrities get away with in the eyes of the law than ordinary citizens. To drive this point home, there is a subplot about a mother who murders her young son after she discovers he has developed a taste for eating anything made of plastic—another sign of evolutionary development. The boy’s father (Scott Speedman) is hellbent on having his son autopsied by Saul so that his son’s transformation will be captured and observed by as many people as possible, in the hopes that his boy’s story won’t just become the stuff of urban legend but will be registered as fact by in-person and televised viewers. These sequences are some of the most heartfelt moments of the movie and add a maturity and emotional depth to Crimes of the Future that isn’t often found in Cronenberg’s work.
Mortensen’s performance is beautifully understated and a bit nauseating because he’s hacking almost constantly because of his condition. But seeing him so frail is a far cry from how we’ve seen him in other Cronenberg movies. The real showstopper here is Stewart, who once again pushes the limits of what we thought she was capable of and gives us something defiantly quirky and unpredictable in Timlin. The character is also the saving grace of Crimes of the Future because she allows us to laugh at the absurdity of the premise even as she is meant to be its ultimate fan girl.
I’m of a firm belief that if this film had had any other director’s name on it or was the product of a new filmmaker, it would be regarded as derivative. Just because Cronenberg birthed some of these concepts and visuals doesn’t mean he gets to repeat them without being called out for it. None of that even slightly makes this a bad film, but if we’re going to tear down other filmmakers for drinking from the nostalgia well, let’s at least play on even ground.
The film officially opens on Friday, but there are preview screenings Wednesday and Thursday at select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre.
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