A cinematic throwback that disturbs but disappoints
It’s been around 8 years since David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Brood, The Fly) turned in his last feature. His eagerly awaited return, picks up an ongoing collaboration with Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method), and the director’s predilection for body horror. Coming off the back of a premiere at Cannes Film Festival, one complete with purported walkouts (and a 7 minute standing ovation), Crimes of the Future is a feature that will certainly satiate most fans, remaining true to the auteur’s style, but won’t convert anyone new to the cult of Cronenberg.
Set in a dark, derelict future, the evolution of humanity has picked up speed. New organs, glands, and subsequently hormones are being found in members of the population. Medical advances have all but eliminated pain, leading to a sub-culture, where individuals push the boundaries of physical experience and human appearance. This is a time where some take their twisting and morphing innards, and turn them into art exhibitions, political statements, and social/ecological messages. The most renowned of these is Saul Tenser (a shrouded performance from Mortensen, literally), a performance artist who seems especially adept at generating new organs. Their cataloguing and extraction is done in collaboration with his partner Caprice (a simmering Léa Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color). Grappling with his creative struggles and physical pain, Tenser becomes caught up in moves to monitor and police the changes humanity is undergoing, and the efforts of a tortured man named Lang (Scott Speedman), who wants to use the autopsy of his son in one of their shows, and advance a growing belief in what these mutational leaps mean for mankind.
While not a remake of his 1970 original, Cronenberg’s latest draws some inspiration from it, as well as from other entries to his oeuvre. The opening scene, featuring the murder of an an “evolved” child by its own mother, sketches out the conflict that engulfs our future society, and more pertinently our protagonist. This age of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome has spawned an industry of bizarre sleeping cradles, eating chairs and surgical platforms, and the proliferation of “desktop surgeries”. This art scene is just one outlet of people to share and stare at what we are becoming. There’s even mention of an underground “inner beauty pageant”, an event that first got its start in Arrested Development, to showcase what biological oddities they’ve been cooking. Tenser removes these organs, striving to keep the new flesh at bay, while Lang has an agenda where he posits the necessity to embrace it. Looming large is the emergence National Organ Registry, run by Wippet (Don McKellar) and his assistant Timlin (a quirky Kristen Stewart), who both become beguiled by Tenser’s celebrity and prolific generation of new organs. Something also reflected in him picking up weird groupies in the form of Biomedical mechanics Berst and Router (played with off-beat relish by Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz). A new age calls for a new bureaucracy and associated police force. Both speak to governmental concerns as pockets of the population begin to show unnatural abilities and tendencies. It all manifests in a backdrop to the film, presenting a transgressive, dystopic thriller, that serves as a critique of America’s social and economic direction. But the focus is the rather tender dynamic between Saul and Caprice; two individuals on a journey to find peace and accept who they are becoming in this new world.
Crimes of the Future feels like classic Cronenberg, and that is perhaps the film’s greatest strength and weakness. Visuals, ideas, and performances are infused with his familiar style and tone. Yet little of it feels new or progressive. There is a quieter timidity to the tale. Structurally it feels disjointed, something compounded by a rather thin sketching of a more expansive world. Some of the aesthetics look less like Cronenberg originals and more like a cheap knockoff. The butchery of the body seems even more crude in an age of CRISPR technology and DNA editing. Despite this, it still resonates. Many of Cronenberg’s earlier efforts similarly ruminated on mutation and transformation, notably Videodrome and Existenz. In those cases, it was typically external forces looking to corrupt the flesh. Here, they come from within, something that befits the more introspective nature of the piece. Body horror gives way to a sensual and spiritual journey. We glimpse people liberated by the changes within, looking to transforming their outsides. Tenser especially, wracked with pain and the loss of control over his own body, channels it into a form of expression. One of the things that defines us as humans is our creativity. So as Tenser becomes more consumed by mutations, each installation marks a rallying against the dying of the light, until his ultimate revelation. To accept and embrace evolution, no matter how revolting it is.
Crimes of the Future hits theaters June 3rd