by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Scott Speedman, Kristen Stewart
MY RATING: 5/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 80% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In a dystopian near-future, the human pain threshold has suddenly disappeared, giving rise to bizarre performance artists who publicly showcase bodily mutations and self-mutilations.
Somewhere at the core of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is a crackling good thriller waiting to happen. I was still waiting for it when the end credits rolled. I couldn’t predict what was going to happen next, which is normally a big plus for me, but the problem was, I didn’t care what was going to happen next. Just when the movie seemed about to kick into a new gear story-wise, boom, credits. Shame.
In the near future, human bodies worldwide have started undergoing bizarre mutations involving the development of new internal organs and the disappearance of a pain threshold. This leads to the proliferation of underground performance artists who are either publicly mutilated or mutilated themselves. Why? Because Cronenberg. We get close ups of the lead character, Saul Tenser (Mortensen), lying in a special chamber while knife-wielding robotic arms controlled by his partner, Caprice (Seydoux), slice, probe, and excavate his thorax in search of unwanted new organs. Another performer lies in a chair while a surgeon literally cuts grooves into her face. Yet another performer has grown dozens of additional ears all over his body, and has his eyes and ears sewn shut while he dances to modern music as a voice intones, “NOW is the TIME to LISTEN.”
This is all typical stuff from Cronenberg, who was and is a virtuoso of so-called “body horror,” going all the way back to Scanners, Videodrome, and the remake of The Fly. It’s so typical, in fact, that the sight of various bodily injuries and mutilations didn’t really faze me as much as I thought it would. Or should. Maybe this says more about me than about Cronenberg, but the most off-putting sight was that one dancer with the extra ears. Everything else, while graphic, didn’t feel “real.” It all felt like effects. Instead of recoiling, I found myself thinking, “Wow, how’d they do that?” (By contrast, the dancer with the ears may yet give me nightmares.)
The storyline of the movie remains maddeningly vague for the first half. In a weird prologue, we watch as a mother performs an unthinkable act after seeing her son eat a plastic trash can as if it were made of gingerbread. Saul Tenser seems to encourage the growth of these new organs in his own body, even though they could become harmful over time. His assistant, Caprice, gets turned on by seeing him getting carved up in his chamber; he seems to enjoy it as well. They call it “the new sex.” There is a subplot about a new police division, New Vice (not terribly original), trying to crack down on people who perform these public acts of mutilation. We watch as an unknown gentleman stalks Saul and Caprice while he eats what looks like a purple chocolate bar. At a bar, another stranger inexplicably grabs the purple bar and takes a bite out of it himself, and immediately experiences something that makes him wish he hadn’t.
This is all interesting, cerebral stuff, I must admit. The makings of a dystopian thriller a la Blade Runner or Gattaca (with more blood) are all there. But the mood and lethargic pacing of the movie literally put me to sleep. I had to rewind it several times during the first half to catch what I missed.
But then the second half kicks in. Saul is contacted and asked to perform a public autopsy on a child who may have inherited a surgical self-mutilation from his father, a medical first which might be the signal of a true next step in human evolution, but one which was engineered by man and not by nature. New Vice reaches out to a deep-cover agent (whose identity I wouldn’t dream of revealing) who is assisting the search for cells of bio-terrorists who are trying to alter the course of human evolution. Meanwhile, Saul, who has been battling some kind of respiratory affliction for the entire film, is tempted with one of those purple bars. Caprice undergoes a self-transformation of her own…
And then, when a crucial discovery is made that might change the course of the entire movie…it’s over.
How to describe my disappointment? I was a huge fan of Cronenberg’s two entries in the genuine, “traditional” crime thriller genre, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both starring Mortensen. Both films are much more conventional than Crimes of the Future, but both are light years ahead in terms of holding my attention. I naively thought this film (with the word “crimes” right in the title!) would be along the same lines. Am I critiquing the film I wanted it to be instead of critiquing the film it is? Maybe I am, because the first half of the movie was so bland and stultifying that I can’t think of anything else to say about it except to compare it to something that I wish it had been.
Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s first feature film after an 8-year hiatus, sees him returning to a horror sub-genre that he virtually created, or at least perfected, nearly 40 years ago, and he does have something meaningful to say about what mankind is doing to itself and the planet without regard to future generations. I just wish he had found a way to say it without boring me for the first fifty-four minutes, then leaving me hanging at the end.