Crimes of the Future Review
Crimes of the Future will open in limited theaters on June 3, before expanding on June 10.
Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s first time behind the camera in eight years, is a deeply frustrating film, filled to the brim with big ideas captured in uninteresting fashion. While Cronenberg remains a conceptual powerhouse, returning to his days as a body horror maestro, his approach to one of his more thoughtful and intimate scripts leaves it wanting for passion, intrigue, and even disgust, the kind that might make the experience feel viscerally complicated, rather than distant and removed (though its performances are certainly engaging).
Set in the future where pain and infection have all but disappeared, and where select humans are blessed with the ability to feel pain as they inexplicably evolve new organs, the film follows a pair of performance artists, Caprice (Léa Seydoux) and Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), whose canvas is the human body, and whose M.O. involves Caprice publicly extracting Tenser’s new body parts in a form of ritualistic surgery. As broad premises go, it’s a fantastic idea, detailed through biomechanical designs that blend skin, bones, and machinery to create therapeutic contraptions reminiscent of elaborate torture devices. Things grow more complicated as Caprice and Tenser capture the attention of police and government bureaucrats concerned with the way human beings are changing — among them, Kristen Stewart as Timlin, a nervous, starstruck surgeon who logs and tattoos each new Tenser organ to mark a new stage of evolution — leading to questions of political allegiance in a rapidly changing world.
Cronenberg’s matter-of-fact approach to this premise yields an amusing absurdism, as his characters elaborate on political mechanics and the illicit nature of their art. Though as they go long on extolling the virtues (and vices) of this new world, the camera rarely captures the way they get swept up in their macabre passions and bodily modifications. It’s a keenly observant film, but one whose observations are about emotional impulse and response to physical stimuli; unfortunately, it rarely embodies that response.
On paper, it’s a work of stunning transhumanism, in which people discover brand new methods of arousal and expression, now that they possess effective carte blanche (physically, if not legally) to explore the inner contours of the human form; as Timlin says in the trailer, “surgery is the new sex.” It’s a line reminiscent of Cronenberg’s Videodrome, in which the mantra “long live the new flesh!” is repeated ad nauseum; in concept, Crimes of the Future feels like Videodrome and Cronenberg’s Crash smashed together — ideas of interwoven bodily and technological evolution colliding with self-destructive forms of desire — all wrapped in a film that shares its name (albeit little else) with the director’s very first feature from 1970. It’s Cronenberg reaching into his past in order to examine his own self-expression, with characters that question whether these new forms of creativity are born from impulse or intent (Cronenberg, in the process, places art itself in the volatile space between want and need), and whether creators themselves can be canvases. Is film the art, or is it merely a medium for the real art — i.e. the artist?
The question of where the idea “art” truly lies — whether in the physical realm, or in somewhere beneath the flesh, as something we ingest, regurgitate, and excise as easily as bodily fluid — is as poignant as anything sci-fi body horror has ever asked, but in Crimes of the Future, the question so rarely goes beyond spoken words. Before the film lays its cards on the table, and presents its most esoteric ideas about the overlap between the synthetic and the biological, Cronenberg creates intrigue through still, clean compositions, and tableaus that both merge and separate characters from their surroundings. For all his wonderfully messed up cinematic ideas, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a precise visualist — but this measured formalism ends up a detriment whenever Cronenberg’s “new sex” (and his new “new flesh”) become the central focus.
It’s somewhat dissatisfying to watch a film whose wild ideas of sexual exploration, and self-exploration, are so plain and so viciously dulled, as if the only desired emotional responses to them are either disgust or lack thereof. The actors all try their damnedest, both to embody Cronenberg’s ideas (the slowly mutating Mortensen, for instance, delivers each line like a man about to hack up his own lungs) and to capture the sense of twisted allure so clearly underlying the story: the conflict between physical and emotional, and the few volatile moments where they align. But this time around, Cronenberg seems to have little interest in meaningfully exploring the many things discussed in the dialogue, from the nature of the body as a vessel for ideas, or the evolution of sexuality in ways that threaten establishment. The characters are all having a much more interesting time dissecting these ideas than the camera has dissecting their physical and emotional selves, so the result feels less like watching a Cronenberg classic in the making, and more like watching other people describe one.