THE STORY – Two teens hatch a risky plan to save their families when an occupying alien species leaves most of the planet impoverished and unemployed.
THE CAST – Asante Blackk, Kylie Rogers, Tiffany Haddish, Josh Hamilton, William Jackson Harper, Brooklynn MacKinzie & Michael Gandolfini
THE TEAM – Cory Finley (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
Cory Finley is no stranger to pitch-black comedy and wild tonal shifts. His previous films, “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education,” found genuine laughs in the worlds of murder and embezzlement while telling compelling stories and exploring themes like the insidious nature of capitalism and class disparity. “Landscape with Invisible Hand” continues Finley’s love affair with dark, even tragic comedy. It leans into the exploration of issues of class and capitalism even more. But where it falters is managing to tell a compelling story.
“Landscape with Invisible Hand” presents a grim vision of a world in which aliens have taken over, not through military action, but by installing themselves in the global economy and using their advanced alien technology to price out almost all humans from the market. Years later, most humans live on Earth in poverty, while the few of those who are wealthy live in floating cities alongside the aliens. Those on Earth scramble to make ends meet by engaging in whatever forms of the gig economy they can manage while enduring a crumbling education system and eating overpriced processed food. Not very subtle, is it? Enter Adam (“When They See Us'” Asante Blackk). Adam is a struggling teenage artist living with his former attorney mom (Tiffany Haddish) – aliens replaced all the lawyers too. They struggle to make ends meet, but they still have a house, unlike most people. When Adam invites his unhoused classmate Chloe (Kyle Rogers) and her family to live with him, the two discover natural chemistry. And suddenly, there’s the gold mine. The aliens are incapable of experiencing human love. So they are fixated on watching human courtships and pay to livestream real-life couples in love. For a time, Adam and Chloe make a fortune streaming their budding romance to the aliens. However, as their relationship crumbles, the aliens notice. They think they’ve been defrauded and want their money back unless they can be convinced that Adam and Chloe’s love is real.
If it sounds like I just summarized the whole movie, trust me, I didn’t come close. What I described is the story the film’s marketing focused on. It’s an undoubtedly engaging concept that becomes more and more relevant by the day as more and more jobs become automated. However, the concept lasts for maybe the first 25 minutes of a nearly two-hour film. And therein lies the problem. Finley knows he loves this world he has created and wants to explore it, but he loses focus on where to take the story. As a result, the film abandons its initial narrative throughline and settles into almost operating as a series of vignettes. The promising dynamic between Adam and Chloe, of two people who need to pretend to be in love 24 hours a day while increasingly coming to hate each other, is largely abandoned, as is Chloe.
We are introduced to various supporting characters played by the likes of William Jackson Harper, Josh Hamilton, and Michael Gandolfini. They provide opportunities to explore how class disparity can still run deep, even within a universally impoverished society. Some of these plot directions are amusing. Some are surprising. The way Josh Hamilton’s arc resolves is particularly memorable. The way Jackson Harper’s is handled is underdeveloped. Mostly, the film suffers from a lack of narrative thrust. It limps along in episodic fashion, staying *just* interesting and funny enough before leading to an earnest but trite conclusion exploring how art can thrive even amid societal collapse.
To Finley’s credit, even if the film’s narrative is weak and its explorations of capitalism and class disparity heavy-handed, he is committed enough to world-building that the viewer keeps watching and wonders what other details of this dystopia we will encounter next. Details like humans shaving their eyebrows and deliberately giving themselves the appearance of having bad skin in order to attempt to earn the trust of aliens and increase their social mobility are fun to take note of. And that exploration of capitalism and class disparity? It’s heavy-handed, but it hits home to viewers more than ever as jobs in the real world are becoming increasingly automated, and people scramble to make ends meet through the gig economy, including live streaming their lives and relationships. Addressing important themes doesn’t make up for a film’s flaws, but it does provide some added pathos.
The design and CGI of the aliens is well-done for a mid-budget film. Gene Park’s (“Midsommar“) sound design is inventive, creating an extensive nonverbal method of communication the aliens utilize involving slaps and clicks. The cast is serviceable. Blackk’s performance here doesn’t feel nearly as assured and confident as his work in “When They See Us,” but he functions well enough as a leading man in an aimless story like this. Meanwhile, Haddish and Hamilton are reliable as usual. Finley is more assured technically as a director here than he was with “Thoroughbreds” or “Bad Education.” That much is clear. He deserves credit for branching out of his comfort zone from dramedies into sci-fi. But he also deserves the blame for the film’s rambling and undisciplined narrative and failure to follow through on its early narrative promises.
Mostly, the film feels like a missed opportunity. We should judge films for what they are, not what we wish they were, but this feels like one of the best examples of a film not making the most of a good concept since the first “Purge” movie. Finley remains an exciting filmmaker. But hopefully, his next effort recaptures his gifts for successfully telling a story instead of just touching on intriguing themes and providing dark comedy.