THE STORY – As the human species adapts to a synthetic environment, the body undergoes new transformations and mutations. Accompanied by his partner, celebrity performance artist Saul Tenser showcases the metamorphosis of his organs. Meanwhile, a mysterious group tries to use Saul’s notoriety to shed light on the next phase of human evolution.
THE CAST – Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart & Scott Speedman
THE TEAM – David Cronenberg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
”At this critical junction in human history, one wonders – can the human body evolve to solve problems we have created? Can the human body evolve a process to digest plastics and artificial materials not only as part of a solution to the climate crisis, but also, to grow, thrive, and survive?” – David Cronenberg
After eight long years since “Maps To The Stars,” legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg has produced a film that may share the same title as his 1970 film “Crimes Of The Future,” but that’s where the similarities end. One thing is for sure, though: Cronenberg’s fascination with the human body, our connection to it, and its evolution, which has always been very much at the forefront of many of his films, now takes center stage in his latest offering. “Crimes Of The Future” may not rank up there with the best of Cronenberg’s filmography. However, when some of your best work includes classics such as “The Fly,” “A History of Violence,” and “Videodrome,” does it really need to? The very fact that a new Cronenberg film exists in 2022 is reason enough for any cinephile to rejoice for the master of body horror is back.
In a future that doesn’t feel as far off as one might think, the human species has evolved due to the numerous environmental changes taking place on the planet. Many humans have lost the ability to feel pain or suffer from infections, and some, like performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), are even creating new organs. These people are still considered humans, but such a viewpoint slowly changes as the government re-evaluates what constitutes being a human once the body goes through “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” where technological equipment is needed for essential everyday life functions such as eating and sleeping. Saul experiences pain constantly as he sleeps in a womb-like bed known as an Orchid Bed, which uses highly developed software to adjust his body as it rapidly changes. Saul’s creative partner (and sometimes more than that) Caprice (Léa Seydoux) assists with his praised performances, even going so far as to cut him open, tattoo his organs, and re-sew him back up again, all so she can take him apart again and show him off for a captive audience. While the duo considers this a means of artistic expression, others, such as the National Organ Registry, led by bureaucrats Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), are more skeptical. And then there are those seeking to exploit these mutations and create a new era of crime on the black market as Saul prepares for his next performance and a new step in human evolution begins.
“Crimes Of The Future” opens with a graphic act of inexplicable violence (not as intense as Cronenberg made us believe, though). A woman has smothered her little boy in his sleep after seeing him chewing away on a glass trash bin. Howard Shore’s mesmerizing, otherworldly music draws us into the narrative despite not fully understanding why such an act is taking place. Cronenberg patiently sets up the world and his characters, introducing us to Saul, Caprice, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the father of the murdered boy, and others. As the plot pushes on, it starts to lose steam, mainly because outside of Saul and Caprice, many of the characters are not as fully fleshed out as one might hope, with not enough time for the actors to deliver performances that would elevate the lack of characterization. Kristen Stewart’s Timlin suffers from this most of all, as it’s pretty evident what she’s going for in her performance as her character becomes more obsessed with Saul’s act and his naturally unnatural body. However, the recent Academy Award nominee overdoes it, resulting in a restless and quietly overbearing performance, leading to awkward and unintentionally laughable moments that doesn’t feel suitable with the rest of the film’s tone. Viggo Mortensen is given the most explicit character motivation and enough screen time to deliver what is one of the most unique performances of his career. Dressed in a black hooded cloak (is it a disguise from the public? Is it simply for him to keep warm and move comfortably in?), he grunts and coughs his way through a frail and sickly performance that is uncomfortable yet sympathetic as he asserts to having no control over how his body is internally changing (although, some dispute this, claiming he can grow a new organ at will). As an artist who is giving meaning to his body through theatre, there is a romanticism to the way Mortensen plays Saul, allowing us into the character’s pained psyche and to sympathize with him as he wants nothing more than to feel comfortable. A sense of comfort does come in the form of Caprice, played exceptionally well by Léa Seydoux, and her chemistry with Mortensen is engaging and rather sweet at times. While Saul may not be “very good at the old sex,” with Timlin seductively whispering in his ear, telling him “surgery is the new sex,” the manner in which Saul and Caprice can connect in a world where humans can no longer feel anything is quite profound.
We can pretty much find meaning in anything, even something as beautifully grotesque as the inside of the human body. While we have no problem with observing the human body from the outside, whether it’s through photography, art, or our own eyes (we even have body museum exhibits dedicated to this), some of us may shy away from seeing the inner workings of that which makes us human. Cronenberg is not only interested in investigating that but also our relationship to it, its relationship to the planet, and specifically, how everything is connected, one way or another. This philosophical approach to the story, equipped with a hefty dose of world-building, makes “Crimes Of The Future” a fascinating movie to ponder, dissect, and explore. One wishes we had more time (the film clocks in well under the two hour mark) to ruminate on what Cronenberg has created. Perhaps someone will decide to one day expand on his version of the future in a graphic novel or television series as it lends itself well to long-form storytelling filled with more questions than answers. Such is the disappointment of “Crimes Of The Future,” for as much as it’s a dark, sexy, and magnetic exploration of where we are going and what we are becoming, unfortunately, Cronenberg’s narrative starts to lose steam the longer it goes on, culminating at what should’ve been the beginning of the film’s third act rather than its ultimate ending. So many plot threads are left unanswered, and although the film’s final moment may be a satisfying dramatic moment for a particular character, that does not mean it’s been the same for us.
“Crimes Of The Future” is an ambitious but undercooked cinematic offering from a director who seems more interested in presenting his film’s world and ideas than he does examining them. That’s not to say it’s one of his worst films. Some might feel wholly satisfied, wanting more by the end with room left to study further and contemplate than to have everything neatly presented and answered. Sure to be divisive amongst Cronenberg fans, it does not matter where you fall for it in the end. We should be grateful to have a movie with a world as interesting as this one that makes a joke out of an inner beauty contest where the top sought after prize is “Best Original Organ” or where a man with his eyes and mouth sewn shut, and multiple ears growing all over his body does an interpretive dance to electronic music. It’s distinctive, transfixing, discombobulating; it’s David Cronenberg.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Fascinating world-building. Strong performances from Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux. An otherworldly score from Howard Shore. Grotesque but imaginative makeup.
THE BAD – Could’ve used fifteen more minutes to flesh out some of the side characters and properly wrap up some of the side plots. Kristen Stewart’s eccentric performance serves as more of an unintentional distraction than as a benefit.