The good news? David Cronenberg’s latest descent into the twisted worlds of underground obsession and dystopian body horor is as much an oddity as any of his previous films. The bad news? For all the big ideas and world-building, Crimes Of The Future lacks the resolve and focus needed to carry its typically heavy themes through to the finish line.
It’s been a minute since the crown king of all things grotesque invited audiences to a trademark spectacle of puss, guts, and writhing organisms, his last true foray into sci-fi body-horror being 1999’s cautionary VR flick Existenz (notably released a month before Wachowski game-changer The Matrix). Since then, his gaze has rested largely on action-thrillers and dramas. His films during this period remain as polarizing as his most provocative gore-work – which is a critical dimension I get the feeling Cronenberg has always felt perfectly fine ruling over – and some, while heavily debated, have reached a pantheon of acclaim themselves, such as the gangster flick A History of Violence, the Pattinson-led Cosmopolis, and the Jung v Freud historical drama A Dangerous Method. Still, as news broke of walk-outs at Crimes Of The Future’s Cannes unveiling way back in may, one couldn’t help but eagerly anticipate the legendary director’s triumphant return to realms of the “new flesh”.
It comes as a disappointment to report, then, that Crimes Of The Future doesn’t quite reach the heights of Cronenberg’s previous bouts with the sub-genre, despite a welcome homecoming at old thematic haunts. Set in a near-future where biological human evolution has in many cases led to the redundancy of physical pain and disease, we follow Cronenberg-regular Viggo Mortensen as Saul Tenser, an acclaimed performance artist whose own particular biological evolution forces his body to grow new organs at an alarming rate. To treat the condition, which leaves him in constant agony and discomfort, his assistant Caprice (Lea Seydoux) removes the organs as part of their underground art-show, what she describes as turning ‘emptiness into meaning’. The two are soon caught in a covert war between an anti-evolution government and a cult-like group of evolutionists.
Cronenberg’s thematic reach runs as deep here as it ever has, touching on old favorites like the increasingly blurred lines between nature and the man-made, the human condition ever-further intertwining with technology, and the perceived next steps in our metamorphosis. It’s fascinating stuff as always, watching the filmmaker dissect big philosophical ideas that are as timely now as they were prophetic in Videodrome, Existenz, and The Fly. His perfect concoction has always been an unlikely hybrid of dark eroticism and the technological frontier – the primal, the taboo, and the looming future. In Videodrome, James Woods obsesses over a television show that constantly broadcasts graphic torture and violence. In Crash, sexual nirvana resides in the fatal thrill of cars colliding. In Crimes Of The Future, ‘surgery is the new sex’. The film’s most gleefully gross-out scene features Caprice giving oral-sex to Tenser by intimately servicing a gaping open wound on his abdomen. Once again, points of technological metamorphosis are the driver for character obsession, sexual and psychological.
On paper, big ideas and conspiratorial narratives taking place in seedy dystopian futures read like a Cronenberg classic. The problem stopping Crimes Of The Future from reaching its full potential is that Cronenberg spends too much time fleshing out the world itself than propelling the narrative towards meaningful conflicts and a satisfying conclusion. We’re introduced to core concepts and characters that are ripe for exploration but then float through the story without ever fulfilling a finite arc. A lack of narrative focus, third act finality, and general excitement renders the movie less remarkable than the sum of its parts. Those who like their Cronenberg slimy and stomach-churning won’t find much to rave about in the surprisingly tame prosthetics, save for the brief appearance of the performance-artist known as “ear-man” who, true to his name, is a man covered head to toe in ears with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. A standout moment of nightmarish abnormality that will make your skin crawl.
Like the film itself, the performances are a mixed bag. Kristen Stewart takes a strange turn as a government-sanctioned surgeon whose constant visible horniness threatens to devour her from the inside-out whenever she’s on screen – on the other hand, supporters of the K-Stew sex-icon renaissance might find that this is exactly what the doctor ordered. She’s not without worthy competition, though, in the form of a miscast Viggo Mortensen playing a cross between an ageing Batman (a fancast I will stand by) and a velociraptor, giving plenty of everything but the substance necessary to make his character memorable. Conversely, Lea Seydoux plays it straight, not giving too much away, and the movie is better for her making that choice.
Crimes Of The Future doesn’t impose the same intrigue and lingering unease as Cronenberg’s previous attempts to put humanity’s obsession with technological hybridity, mortality, and the “new flesh” under the microscope – and lacks the focus of those earlier experiments. Instead, as the screen abruptly cuts to black and “Directed by David Cronenberg” flashes across the screen, the only feeling you’re left with is the confusion of having spent near-two hours watching a lot of world-building and very little payoff. Like many in his polarising ouvre, only time will tell whether Crimes Of The Future will age in league with the iconic filmmaker’s most revered work. I’m not convinced it will, but I wouldn’t rule it out…