Review: Landscape With Invisible Hand Is a Quirky, Original Indie with a Believable, Intriguing Premise

I’ve seen a lot of variations on the alien invasion/occupation theme in movies over the decades, but I can’t recall one quite as bizarre and singular as writer/director Cory Finley’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, based on the book by M.T. Anderson. Finley is the filmmaker responsible for the fantastic works Thoroughbreds and Bad Education, but neither of those works quite prepared me for this story of an Earth occupied by a benevolent alien race called the Vuvv, pint-sized creatures who speak by scraping their hands(?) together and have provided the world with advanced technology that they say is meant for global prosperity. In fact, it renders most human workers—and their salaries—obsolete, sending the planet into the worst depression in history, making humans completely dependent on their grotesque overlords.

We enter this story through the eyes of 17-year-old high school student and promising artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), who lives fairly comfortably with his single mother, Beth (Tiffany Haddish), and younger sister Natalie (Brooklynn MacKinzie). Beth is an attorney in a society where the Vuvv love to sue, so the family isn’t struggling as much as so many others. Adam meets a new student in his school, Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), and the two hit it off, so much so that Adam invites Chloe and her father (John Hamilton) and brother (Michael Gandolfini) to live in their basement, rather than in their car. Beth is uneasy with this, but the Marsh family promise to pay rent as soon as they can, so Beth is good sharing space and printed food cubes with them.

It turns out the Vuvv have a warped sense of free will, emotion, and artistic expression, and Adam and Chloe are able to make money by live-streaming their budding romance, for which they get donations from fans of their storyline. Chloe’s family manages to actually pay rent, and for a short time, life seems to be working out. But when the flame of this teen romance begins to dim, Adam and Chloe pretend to still be in love, only to be busted by the Vuvv and sued for the money that’s been donated. Being the lawyer she is, Beth strikes a deal with the litigious Vuvv and allows one of the aliens (most of whom live in ships parking just above the surface of the earth) to live with her as her pretend husband, playing the role of a couple, using TV shows like Leave It to Beaver as a template for the relationship. This does not sit well with the independent Beth, but in order to keep the aliens from suing them into the poor house, she puts up with it.

Landscape with Invisible Hands goes on from there, into stories that include the local high school getting shut down, Adam painting a powerful mural depicting how he views the human-Vuvv relationship on the side of the now-empty building, and having the Vuvv react unexpectedly to it, forcing Adam to make a choice about how he wants to spend the next few years of his life. The film is clearly part absurdist comedy, part social commentary (the Vuvv don’t really treat the human workforce any differently than the government treats the working middle class today), and part quirky science fiction tall tale. As unsure as I was where this thing was going, I was mostly captivated by what was unfolding from one strange minute to the next.

Not everything the film is attempting to do or the messages it's trying to relay works, but watching the matter-of-fact way humans and Vuvv interact (with the Vuvv always being in the position of power) was fascinating. The decisions being made by Adam and his friends and family at times are potentially life-altering, but with the way their world is structured, they make sense. 

When the power dynamic in the household shifts—for one brief moment, Adam’s father (William Jackson Harper) shows up and sends everything into a tizzy—the film gets even more quirky and unpredictable, qualities that are rare in most movies I see in a given year. I wouldn’t call the film great, but the oddness of it all put me in a kind of trance, especially when the Vuvv are on screen, because I became obsessed with learning more about their species, their way of life, and their time on Earth. In a way, the story is a bit like watching the beginnings of a revolution, only we don’t get to see how it plays out for the put-upon humans. I hope we make it.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.